On my mind this week are a trio of words which sometimes catch my attention (rarely in positive ways): amidst, amongst, and whilst.
Most sources note (with various amounts of further explanation) that these words are flowery variants of their simpler forms: amidst for amid, amongst for among, whilst for while.
There is debate on the utility, value, and even discrete definitions of the variant forms of these words, but I come down solidly on one side, at least when it comes to modern American usage:
amidst, amongst, and whilst are all pretentious affectations and should never be used in your writing if you want to be taken seriously.
American style guides are pretty clear on this. Chicago, during a discussion that also includes between (but is silent on whilst, as if it doesn’t even exist), tells the user to “avoid amidst and amongst.” For amid, AP only notes “not amidst;” they note the difference between among and between, without acknowledging that amongst exists. Whilst, similarly, is not even recognized.
Garner offersts the most thorough commentary out of my personal “big three” of style guides. Noting that “amid and amidst are slightly quaint words, especially the latter,” neither is condemned. However, it’s pointed out that “often the word in or among serves better” and that amidst has an aura of Britishness to it. At publication time (2009), GMAU noted that amid appeared in print roughly 20 times more often than amidst; some quick work in the Google Ngram viewer suggests this might have been too optimistic: sadly, current print use seems to be just a bit better than 2:1 in favor of amid.
There’s been a noticeable uptick in the frequency of both words since 2004, with both nearly doubling their relative appearances since then. Despite that increase, both words are at near-historic lows in relative usage, and have been in decline since the 1850s (perhaps, as Garner suggested, because in or among is often superior). That seems to be the same time (1852, if Ngrams‘ precision is accepted) that amid overtook amidst in print usage. Prior to that date, amidst was the preferred word, and easily led amid, but beginning around 1780 amid gained ground. When the end came, it came quickly, and within less than 40 years of overtaking amidst, amid was dominant by 2:1, where it’s remained ever since. It’s notable that after amid took over, both words began a decline. It’s hard to prove without more thorough research, but this looks like perhaps it’s a real-world example of a word being skunked, although in this case we might be seeing how two words were skunked as a pair because neither pleased everyone (and each could be guaranteed to offend many).
Ngram data also suggest that amongst has been affected use for even longer than amidst: it has only had brief periods of prominence in print, none since the late 1600s. It’s never been more than one-quarter as common as among since then, and today among is favored by more than 20 to 1.
Whilst has had even less print success, never having been the favored version, and from a peak of about 40% of all appearances in the late 1600s it has steadily lost ground. Its best days since were around 1810, when the use of while outstripped it by a mere 6:1. Today that’s about 28:1, which seems like a good start to me.
In addition to these specific entries, under the discussion of “Americanisms and Britishisms,” GMAU notes (without condemnation or detailed commentary) that “many Americans have begun using amongst and whilst.” That’s under the subhead of “Britishisms Invading AmE,” by the way, which Garner suggests are very few compared to the opposite direction. I guess when it comes to language infiltration, we Americans have something to be grateful for.
Amongst gets little quarter in GMAU: it’s archaic and “pretentious,” although “more tolerable in BrE.” Whilst receives similar treatment: in AmE it’s “virtually obsolete” and “reeks of pretension” (although according to GMAU it “predominates in BrE” — a claim that doesn’t seem to hold up, since even some British style guides recommend against it).
My own (scattershot) research has led me to believe — suggested by inference and anecdotal observations, but unproven by extensive data — that the “-st” endings have always been affectations to be avoided and that their (relative) prominence is a modern phenomenon — modern in this case meaning since about 1800. I suspect that this applies even to British English, and below are a few examples, using venerable and well-respected English-language writing, to give weight to my argument.
Before the examples, one brief note about the origins of the different forms. Linguists agree that the non “-st” forms are older: the OED dates first use of each “-st” form to about three centuries after the other versions. All “-st” forms seem to have arisen sometime during the 13th century, and might have been a quirk of local (southern England) pronunciation that gained wider currency.
Now, let’s dive into those literary examples.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses among at least 30 times; amongst appears not at all. Similarly, while appears at least 28 times; whilst not at all. Neither amid nor amidst show up in the work…pointing to the wisdom of GMAU‘s in/among advice.
If we’re willing to take the language of Jonathon Swift in Gulliver as typical of his day (it was first published in 1726), then we have to also accept that the “-st” forms of these words were not preferred at that time.
But maybe you won’t accept Swift as authoritative. What about some earlier or later literary works? How about Shakespeare’s writing — all of it — and something by Jane Austen? How about Dickens?
In all of Shakespeare (written mostly in the decades to each side of 1600), the non “-st” forms dominate. Amid only appears twice; amidst but once (not counting a single contracted form). That’s a 2:1 ratio. But it’s not exactly a great data set. Among shows up 87 times and amongst only 38 (fairly close to 2:1; adding in the contracted ‘mongst forms, it’s still in the minority). The while to whilst count is 432 to 123 (about 3.5:1).
In Pride & Prejudice (1813), none of the words are particularly prominent. Amid is used only once, amidst a mere 4 times (4:1); among appears 17 times, amongst 7 (a bit less than 2 1/2 : 1); while 43 times, whilst only 4 (better than 10:1).
Accepting A Tale of Two Cities (1859) as representative of Dickens, amid appears three times, while shows up 98 times, among 104 times. Dickens or his editor avoided the “-st” forms completely, not using any even a single time. Not once.
What does this tell us about modern usage? Perhaps in some views not much. But I believe this kind of thing is indicative of a kind of affectation and pretension that creeps into the written language when writers are careless. It’s the same sort of process that generates foul-smelling Engfish and painful-to-read academic English. The good writer of any prose, for a newspaper, a magazine, a novel, or straight-out non-fiction — even academic journal articles — should strive to write clearly, and using these words with their “-st” forms runs counter to that.
You can find discussions online in which people argue, sometimes vociferously, that there’s a careful and particular distinction between the “-st” and non “-st” forms of these words, particularly while and whilst. For example, that whilst involves continuity or duration, as opposed to a specific moment indicated by while (used more as “until” or “although“); or that one word involves duration, the other action. For several reasons (including that good sources are scarce, that these seem to be very specific British regionalisms while this post deals with general American usage, and because I have no interest in getting involved), I won’t discuss those fine points here. But if this interests you enough, I encourage you to delve, and to let the readers here know what you determine.
Now that I’ve spent all this time knocking these words down and telling you not to use them, I’ll cautiously allow that there is an acceptable variant use in some situations. Although the word “amidst” is pretentious and shouldn’t be used, the phrase “in the midst of” can still be used colloquially without irony, and without looking like an affectation, with the right audience. It was overtaken by “in the middle of” during the 1930s, but is still — more or less — an acceptable and understood construction. Garner’s advice, of course, still applies: in, among, or even between will often be the better choice here, too.
Take a little time to choose your words carefully. Although they might not actually come out and thank you for it, your readers will appreciate it.