First-year undergraduate writing leaves so much to be desired that it seems silly to get stuck on two letters. But as I grade my first set of papers, I’m struck by the sudden ubiquity of –st:
- It is interesting to note that whilst the character is dreaming …
- The true nature of his actions is unbeknownst to the reader.
- Amongst his peers, Melville was the best at this.
- Whilst we should not overly concern ourselves with that here …
What’s going on? Most language mavens see the –st forms of these works as archaic and attribute their use to formal-sounding hypercorrection. To some extent, that must be true. Some -st forms came from the adverbial genitive addition of –es in the 14th century — the same formation that gave us besides rather than beside. Some sort of confusion with the –est ending of superlatives left us with amongst, amidst, whilst — and, in fact, against, the only one that remains current in common American usage. (Its original form, the prepositional use of again, is now considered “regional and nonstandard” by the OED.) How unbeknownst got its extra letters — unknown morphing into unbeknown and unknownst, then further morphing into unbeknownst, all around the 18th century — is, well, unknown.
Still, I get it: the –st endings are old, though not actually as old as the words we still commonly use; among, for instance, dates from 1000, amongst from 1375. Old words are fancier words, to some people, and first-year students want to use fancy words. But students have always wanted to impress their teachers with fancy words, and I haven’t seen this proliferation of –st forms until this year. Sure enough: Ngrams shows a slow tumble in the use of these forms through the 20th century, and then a sharp rise beginning in about 2003. So just as avenues of rapid communication seem to have made many student locutions more casual, in this case there’s correlation (not causation, I realize) between the rise of social media and the rise of amongst, whilst, amidst, and even unbeknownst. One avid Twitter user and grammarian, Stan Carey, took to the Twittersphere to discover off-the-cuff rationales for using the –st forms of these words. There were plenty, ranging from the differences among meanings of a word like while (“while = time concurrent, whilst = even though”) to its place in the sentence (“Maybe more emphasis with the –st, especially coming at the beginning of a sentence”; “I decide which form to use based on the sound of the following word”; “I restrict whilst to when subject omitted in following clause, e.g. whilst walking but never whilst I was walking.”).
My job in this class is to prepare students to write academic papers that will pass muster with their professors through the rest of their years in college. To that end, I’m discouraging the use of –st forms. Too many professors will see only hypercorrection and, as Robert Hartwell Fiske puts it in his Dictionary of Unendurable English, “the mark of a sophomoric, not a sophisticated, writer or speaker.” But I’m keeping an eye and ear out for evolving distinctions in usage that might eventually resemble the difference we observe between beside and besides (or that some observe between toward and towards). That is, one day amongst might actually mean something slightly different from among. The future is unbeknownst, and whilst we await it, we may as well admit that we live amidst change.