Time to stop talking about the time

The conjunction while can have 2 meanings:

  • a temporal meaning, introducing a subordinate clause that refers to an action occurring at the same time as an action described by the main clause:
    They whistled while they worked.
  • a concessive meaning, as a synonym for although:
    While they aren’t perfect, they are good enough.

Avoid while for concession

I generally try not to use while to express the concessive meaning. Readers may misread it as having the temporal meaning. Here is a recent example where it might have been better to avoid while.

‘While we are not being prescriptive, we will share best practice in order to improve outcomes for patients.’
Our Plan for Patients, [UK] Department of Health & Social Care, Policy Paper, 22 September 2022 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-for-patients/our-plan-for-patients

In this case, it may be clear that the intended meaning is ‘Although we are not being prescriptive, …’ But even here, readers might misinterpret it as meaning ‘As long as we are not being prescriptive, we will share best practice’. And they might read it as implying ‘if we become prescriptive, we may stop sharing best practice’.

In this case, the risk of misunderstanding or ambiguity is low. Nevertheless, I advise writers and editors not to use while with its concessive meaning. Writers often don’t spot ambiguity in their own writing. and there is just no reason to run any risk of misunderstanding. Other expressions (such as although) can express that concessive meaning clearly and cannot be misunderstood as referring to time.

And avoid as and since for because

For similar reasons, I advise writers and editors not to use as or since to express a causal meaning (‘because’). They too could be misunderstood as referring to time (‘during’ or ‘after’).

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