When / While

Indicate same-time (synchronous) activities

Talking on phone and looking at newborn
 

 

Same-time Events

WHEN

When is complemented by a clause with an activity that (1) is a short interruption, or (2) occurs at nearly the same time or shortly after another activity.   A nonprogressive verb form is more commonly used (short duration).

When you called, he was watching his baby.
(short interruption; "at the moment")

when - same time
 

When you called, he picked up his cell phone.
(series of events; "immediately after")
when - immediately after 

WHILE

While is complemented by a clause with a same-time (simultaneous) activity and includes a verb expressing duration. The while-clause often expresses a background activity to the focus-activity in the main clause.

While he was talking, he was holding his baby.
(ongoing; "during the time")
occurring same time
 

While he was talking, his baby slept.
(ongoing; "during the time")
occurring during the time  

  

When and while are prepositions followed by time-related (adjunct) clauses. (Huddleston 700)

Related pages Short / Long Duration,

Also see While Walking "Reducing time-relative clauses"

 

 

 

 

 

When / While

Other Expressions

 

 

 

Other expressions for when and while

WHEN
SAME-TIME¹

We were eating at the moment he called.
We were eating when he called.

We were eating at the time he called.  (point, instant)
We were eating when he called.

We were eating whenever he called. (any time)
We were eating when he called.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER²

We stopped eating upon receiving his call.
We stopped eating when we received his call.

We stopped eating just as he called.
We stopped eating when he called 

We complained immediately after he called.
We complained when he called.

We complained shortly after he called.
We complained when he called 

WHILE
SAME-TIME

We were eating dinner as he was talking / talked on his phone.²

During the time that we were eating dinner, he he was talking / talked on on his phone.

He was talking / talked on his phone throughout the time that we were eating.

 

He was talking / talked on his phone at the same time that we were eating.

He was talking / talked on his phone. Meanwhile, we were eating.

He was talking / talked on his phone during the time that we were eating.

He was talking / talked on his phone all the while we were eating. (idiom)

 

When has two meanings: 1) same time; 2) immediately after, in sequence
² Specific verbs such as talk express action with duration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punctuation

Clause Order

 

 

 

Initial vs. Final Clause Placement

INITIAL CLAUSE  PLACEMENT

use a commaA comma is placed after the when-clause if it is placed before the main clause. The comma marks the separation of the two clauses.

DEPENDENT CLAUSE INDEPENDENT CLAUSE

When you called,

he was watching his baby.

While he was talking,

he was holding his newborn.

FINAL CLAUSE PLACEMENT

don't use a commaNo comma is used if the when-clause is placed after the main clause.

INDEPENDENT CLAUSE DEPENDENT CLAUSE

He was watching his baby

when you called.

He was holding his newborn

while he was talking.

 

newborn (n.) — a very young baby (first few days)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

* While he called me, he was driving to work.

  The adverb while introduces an activity of longer duration: calling or dialing is a short action.

*While he is watching television, she does not.

Unclear meaning while  — verb tense adds to problem 

SOLUTION

When he called me, he was driving to work.
Change
while to when. (when = interruption)

While he was talking on the phone with me, he was driving to work.
Change the activity to one of longer duration.)

While he is watching television, she is reading.

while (time adverbial) — at the same time

 

While he watches television, she does not.

while (contrast adverbial) — whereas, on the one hand

 

*not used

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

 

Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

In traditional grammar, the adverbs when and while introduce adverbial clauses. They are called also called subordinating conjunctions which, in this case, join time-related clauses.  The clause is called a dependent clause

Note that in traditional grammar, a preposition requires an object, a noun or noun phrase, after it.  All other types of complements such as an adverb phrase, infinitive phrase, gerund phrase, or clause are not included in the definition of a prepositional phrase. The word is often called a conjunction or subordinating conjunction.  (In this website, the catch-all term is Connectors.) 
 

as, when and while — are used for 'background' action or situation which is going on when something else happens/happened. [No grammar term is given.] (Swan 73)

In linguistic description, while, when, though, although, if, as if, as though, whenever, once and whilst are prepositions and may have as a complement: a finite clause, a nonfinite clause, or a verbless clause. The clause is supplemental (a dependent clause) (Huddleston 1262, 1267) 

Temporal Location Adjuncts (after, before, since, when, while) 
Prepositions  (Huddleston 8 §6.3;697)
Conjunctions (Swan 73, 411.6, 30, 97)
Subordinator. Adverbial Clause (Biber 2.4.7.5)
Subordinator. Adverbial Clause (Quirk 15.28)

Note that a large number of adverbs have been re-assigned to the category of preposition, which allows a wide range of complement type. See Prep Complements.  (Huddleston 700)

 

i.    While he was calling me , he was driving to work. (adverbial clause / subordinating conj. + dependent clause)

ii.   While calling (me), he was driving to work. (Same as above with clause reduction)

iii.  While on the phone, he was driving to work (Qualifies as a preposition!)
 

i.    While he was calling me, he was driving to work. (finite clause)

ii.   While calling (me), he was driving to work. (nonfinite clause)

iii.  While on the phone, he was driving to work (verb-less clause)
 

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice

Simultaneous Activities

Monkey on the roof

 

Complete the sentence with when and while.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the check button at the left or the check-all button at the bottom
 

simultaneous (adj.) — same time   

 

1.
 I was making dinner. My sister was watching television.



2.
We were watching the movie called "King Kong".   A friend came over.

3.
We were watching the movie.  We were laughing about its unlikely plot (story).


unlikely plot  (expression) — seemingly impossible events that form a story

4.
The the movie ended. We turned off the TV.

5.
I was talking on the phone.  My friend was reading magazines.

6.
  My friend stood up to leave.  It was midnight.

7.
doorknobHe touched the door knob.  (first activity)  We heard a thud on the roof.  (second activity)


thud (n.) — loud heavy sound

8.
He looked at me. (first activity) I said, "King Kong?" (second activity)

9.
He opened the front door. (first activity)  We saw nothing but leaves and branches. (second activity)

10.
Morning came. (first activity) A truck lifted our "King Kong" off the roof. (second activity)



fallen treetree removal
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Dependent on Devices

Phone Dependence
 

 

Read for Errors

Psychologists have a growing concern with iPhone and other smart-phone dependence. People are interacting with their phones when they could be interacting with people.  Teens and adults are engaging in addictive behavior such as checking their phones when they are having face-to-face conversations.  Some teens are using words such as LOL, BRB while they are talking with friends. Some people report that they feel "naked" while they forget their phones or somehow become separated from the device. 

Many cannot sleep while their phones are next to their beds.  A number of people report checking email in movie theaters when they are supposed to be engaged in the movie.  Other people have admitted to doing things on their phones while they were driving or operating heavy equipment. Unfortunately, a distracted driver is often unable to disengage fast enough when an accident is about to happen.  Is it a sign of the times, or just bad behavior?

addictive (adj.) — a habit that turns to a need

admit to (v.) — say with difficulty or embarrassment that something is true

dependence (n.) — the state of relying on or needing someone or something for aid, support

concern (n.) — worry

device (n.) a mobile device: smart-phone, tablet, iPad, iPod, etc.

disengage (v.) — free or release one's attention to something

engage (v.) — occupy the attention of a person

naked (adj.) — without clothing

psychologist (n.) — doctors who study the mind and human behavior

used to be  (v.) — past custom

"Do you sleep with your iPhone?"  Apps Gone Free. AppAdvice.com 26 Jul 2011. Web. Nov 2012.

 

 

 

 

Correct or Incorrect?

  1. Select the response correct or incorrect
  2. Click the "check all" button at the bottom of the practice to reveal the answers after you finish.
  3. Compare your response to the answer.

 

11.
People are interacting with their phones when they could be interacting with people.

   

12.
Teens and adults are engaging in addictive behavior such as checking their phones when they are are having face-to-face conversations.

   

13.
Some teens are using words such as LOL and BRB while they are talking with friends.

   

14.
Some people report that they feel "naked" while they forget their phones or somehow become separated from the device.

   

15.
M
any cannot sleep while their phones are next to their beds.

   

16.
A number of people report checking email in movie theaters when they are supposed to be engaged in the movie.

   

17.
Other people have admitted to doing things on their phones when they were driving or operating heavy equipment.

   

18.
Unfortunately, a distracted driver is often unable to disengage fast enough when an accident is about to happen.