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When vs. While

Indicate same-time activities (synchronous)

Talking on phone and looking at newborn
 

 

Same-time Events

WHEN

When is followed by a clause with an activity that (1) is a short interruption, or (2) occurs at nearly the same time or shortly after the first activity.   A nonprogressive verb form is more commonly (but not always) used for activities of short duration¹.

INTERRUPTION

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

when - same time
 

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

WHILE

While is followed by a clause with a same-time (simultaneous) activity and includes a verb expressing duration². The while-clause often expresses a background activity to the focus-activity in the main clause.                                                                  

SAME TIME

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 "temporal" prepositions which take a time-related clause as the complement. (Huddleston, et. al. 700)   When and while, along with serveral other adverbs, were reanalyzed (2002) as prepositions.  At the same time, the complements that could follow a preposition were widened to include: a noun, noun phrase, gerund, infinitive, clause  and more. See Prepositional Complements.  In effect, we have a clause within a prepositional phrase!  He was holding his baby [PP while [Cls you were talking.]]  Also see While Walking "Reducing time-relative clauses"

 

¹ When has two meanings:

² A verb may carry a meaning that expresses:   

See  Short / Long Duration Verbs and Process vs. Punctual Verbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When / While

Foreground vs. Background Activity

The baby is yawning.
 

Interrupting Focus vs. Primary Focus

FOCUS IS AN INTERRUPTION

Imagine a movie scene with a lot of people talking in a room, and then the camera zooms in on one person. The person becomes the subject of the foreground and the other people and activity move into the background. In a similar way, when focuses on an interrupting activity. Follow-up comments tend to focus on the foreground activity.

BACKGROUND FOREGROUND
  FOCUS FOR CONVERSATION

He was holding his baby

when the phone rang.

Who called?

He was counting the babies fingers

when the baby yawned.

How cute!

Everyone quieted down

when the baby was born.

What a moment!

FOCUS IS THIS ACTIVITY

When and while also draw attention to an activity. The activity in the when or while clause tends to be the central focus for follow-up conversation or comments. While is followed by verbs expressing ongoing, repetitive or detailed activities (punctual). When is followed by verbs expressing duration (process).                                          

BACKGROUND FOREGROUND
  FOCUS FOR CONVERSATION

He was holding his baby

 

while we were discussing names.

What names did you come up with?

They were trying to conceive a baby

when/while they were still living in a small apartment in the city.

So did they move away?

The baby's gender (sex) was revealed

when he was born.

They waited until the birth to find out the gender?

 

backgrounding (Ger) – a grammatical term for moving something out of central focus  and into a position of less focus (less importance or less interest).

come up with (Phrasal Verb) – think of, put together, call to mind

conceive (V) – begin life (also, to form a notion, an opinion, a purpose, an idea)

interruption (N) – a stop or break in the middle of an activity; a discontinuance; interference with action or speech

reveal (V) – announce publicly, make known to all

tends to be (V Expr.) – is more likely to be; is more expected to be

yawn (V) (N) – an involuntary action of opening the mouth widely and taking air into the lungs

 

 

 

 

 

 

When / While

As, During Throughout, Meanwhile

 

 

 

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.

During the time that we were eating dinner, he was talking / talked 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. (expression)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punctuation

Commas

 

 

 

Initial vs. Final Clause Placement

INITIAL CLAUSE  PLACEMENT

use a commaInitial placement of a when phrase/clause requires a comma to separate it from the main clause.

WHEN + CLAUSE MAIN 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 phrase/clause is placed after the main clause.

MAIN CLAUSE WHEN + CLAUSE

He was watching his baby

when you called.

He was holding his newborn

while he was talking.

 

 

Traditional grammar analyzes this structure (e.g. when you called) as an "adverbial clause". Current linguistic research analyzes this structure as a prepositional phrase; it places "when" in the category of Preposition (i.e. when [prep] you called [clause]). See Grammar Notes below.

newborn (N) — a very young baby (first few days)

The background activity is expressed in the independent clause.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

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

 Use while before the activity of longer duration (the background activity).

*While he is watching television, she does not.

Background activity is expressed, but focus activity is unclear.

SOLUTION

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

While he was driving to work, he called me.
(while = the background activity)

While he is watching television, she is reading.

While he watches television, she does something else.

(Complete the focus activity.)

 

*not used

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grammar Notes(Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

In traditional grammar, the adverbs when and while introduce adverbial clauses. They are 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 that take 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

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

 

 

 

 

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" or "Check 1-10" button.
 

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 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?"  AppAdvice. 26 Jul 2011. http://appadvice.com/appnn/2011/07/do-you-sleep-with-your-iphone-psychologists-worry-about-this-new-addiction. Accessed on 19 Aug. 2016.

 

 

 

 

Correct or Incorrect?

  1. Select your response—correct or incorrect.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or "Check 11-18" button.

 

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 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.