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When vs. While

Relate same-time activities

Talking on phone and looking at newborn
 

In Context

My wife gave birth to our daughter last night. Our little baby girl was napping when I phoned my family. I was staring at her little face while I was holding her. She was sleeping so peacefully.

When I called home, my brother picked up the phone. We were talking while my mother was listening in on our conversation. My brother said that she had tears in her eyes while I was talking about the birth.

 

Same-time Events

WHEN

When (at the time) relates the timing of a second activity to the activity in the main clause. It may relate [1] a same-time activity (an interruption) or [2] an- immediately-after activity (a result). The activity expressed is one having a short duration or one that is not the focus of the sentence.

When is a connective preposition¹ often complemented (followed) by a clause but also a gerund, adjective or prepositional phrase, (See Other Complements.) If a verb is included, it is usually nonprogressive.

INTERRUPTION—AT THE MOMENT

When you called, he was holding his newborn baby.  

when - same time
 

RESPONSE—IMMEDIATELY AFTER

When you called, he picked up his phone.

when - immediately after 

WHILE

While (during the time) relates the timing of a second activity to the activity in the main clause. It may relate [1] a same-time activity with shorter timing, or [2] a same-time activity with equal or longer duration (a background activity to the focus-activity in the main clause).

While is a connective preposition¹ often complemented (followed) by a clause but also a gerund, adjective or prepositional phrase. (See Other Complements.) If a verb is included, it is usually progressive.

SAME TIME—SOMETIME DURING THE TIME

While he was talking, he was holding his newborn baby.  (held)

occurring same time
 

SAME TIME—DURING THE TIME

While he was talking, his baby slept.   (was sleeping)

occurring during the time

  

¹ conjuction vs. preposition — In linguistic, scientific, and math descriptions, the word conjunction expresses AND, a Boolean term which means the union or overlap of the two fields. X ∧Y. See "And, But…not, Or". Adjunct preposition or connective preposition is the term for a word that joins additional, extra (adjunct) information before or after the clause. See Connective Prepositions.

When and while are "temporal" (timing) prepositions which are complemented (completed) by a time-related clause. (Huddleston, et. al. 700)   When and while, along with several 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 / When -ing "Reducing time-relative clauses"

 

When has four meanings: 

  1. interruptionHe was holding his newborn baby when you called.   ("called" ["rang up"] —short duration² )
  2. same timeHe was holding his newborn baby when (or while) he was talking on the phone.  ("was talking" —longer duration³)
  3. immediately after (in response)—When you called, he picked up his phone.  ("called" and "picked up"—short duration)
  4. anytime / wheneverWhen he has a question, he calls the doctor.  (cause effect) See If v. When.

While has four meanings:

  1. an amount of time We have to wait for a while until he wakes up. "indefinite or unknown amount of time"
  2. same timeHe was holding his newborn baby while (or when) he was talking on the phone. (was talking — duration [process verb]) 
  3. concession While he doesn't like changing diapers, he will do it occasionally . See Cause-effect Terms.
  4. contrast a difference While some fathers are uncomfortable holding newborns, others are not. See Contrast Connectives.

Long or short duration may be expressed by the meaning of the verb:    

  1. duration (process) such as talk, walk, eat, sleep, cook, study.  (nonprogressive form)  (See Verbs of Short and Long Duration)
  2. short duration (punctual) such as bark, jump, clap, sneeze, gulp, begin, end, fall  (nonprogressive form).

Long or short duration may be expressed by the tense of the verb:   

  1. duration (process) He has been calling you all day. That dog is barking. (progressive form) The dog barked. (habitually) (See Present, Past, Present Perfect.)
  2. short duration (punctual) He called (rang). The dog barked. (once)   (nonprogressive form)  (See Past.)

 

Related Pages:

Present Tense – Verb Meaning & Timing (general truth/fact vs. at the moment/observation)

Past v. Past Progressive – Verbs of Short and Long Duration (detail activity, directed toward an end, accomplishment. vs. activity with duration, process)

Progressive Verb Forms – Verbs of Short and Long Duration

Present Perfect – Duration vs Completion.

 

 

 

 

When / While – Focus Activity

Express Foreground vs. Background Activity

The baby is yawning.
 

When—interruption vs. While—another ongoing activity

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
MAIN ACTIVITY INTERRUPTING ACTIVITY

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!

ANOTHER ONGOING ACTIVITY

Both when and while can be followed by a clause that draws attention to another ongoing activity that is the central focus. The verb in the while clause is mostly progressive, expressing repetitive or detailed activities. The verb in the when clause is mostly nonprogressive and expresses an activity without particular focus on duration.                  

BACKGROUND FOREGROUND–FOCUS
MAIN ACTIVITY SAME-TIME ACTIVITY

He was holding his baby

 

while we were discussing names.

Which name did you like?

They were trying to raise a baby

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

So did they move to a house?

The baby's gender (sex) was revealed

when he was born.

Were they surprised?

 

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

See Background Activity – Past Progressive |

 

 

 

 

When – Two Meanings

Express same-time v. immediately after

 

 

When—"at the same time" vs. "immediately after"

ABOUT THE SAME TIME

When¹ (same time) relates the timing of a second activity to the activity in the main clause. The timing overlaps, occurs at about the same time.

When may relate [1] a one-time pairing of activities (X and Y) or [2] a routine pairing of activities (whenever X occurs, Y results). The verb in the when clause is mostly nonprogressive; the focus is on the activity not its duration.    

FIRST ACTIVITY JUST BEFORE OR SAME TIME
PREP + CLAUSE MAIN CLAUSE

When I call, (present form)

"whenever this occurs" 

the doctor comes in. (present)

"this occurs" (routine)

same-time

When I called, (past)

"at the same time this occurred" 

the doctor came in. (past)

"this occurred" (1-time)

When I call, (present)

"whenever this occurs" 

the doctor will come in.

"this occurs" (prediction)

IMMEDIATELY AFTER

When² (immediately after ) relates the timing of a second activity to the activity in the main clause. The timing occurs immediately after as a response.

The verb in the when clause is mostly nonprogressive and relates an activity with relatively short duration (instantaneous or detail activities). See Verbs of Short and Long Duration.                                                                                            

FIRST ACTIVITY SECOND ACTIVITY
PREP + CLAUSE MAIN CLAUSE

When the doctor comes in,

"anytime this occurs"  (routine)

I ask her questions.  (present)

"this occurs immediately after"

same-time

When the doctor came in, 

"at the time this occurred"  (1-time)

I asked her questions. (past)

"this occurred" 

When the doctor comes in, 

I will asked her questions. (prediction)

 

* not used (not logical) / ~ requires a special context for use

short duration verbs —See Duration vs Completion "telic". 

 when (connective preposition)—See Connective Prepositions (for a  description)

See If vs. When, When vs. While  and Awhile v. A while (N - Adv [P])

See Grammar Notes below for details about grammar terms.

(Huddleston 8 §6.4 [29])

 

 

 

 

When/While – Other Complements

Express minimal information with shortened clauses

 

 

When / While Followed by Other Complements

WHEN + OTHER COMPLEMENTS

When can be followed by other structures besides a clause. The information of the clause can be shortened to a gerund (-ing), a prepositional phrase or an adjective. The missing information has to be guessed from the context.

TIME-RELATED ACTIVITY FOCUS ACTIVITY
PREP + CLAUSE MAIN CLAUSE

When he called,

(full clause)

he was watching his baby.

PREP + GERUND  

When he was calling,

The subject is understood as being the same subject as the main clause.

he was holding his newborn.

PREP + ADJECTIVE  

When he was available,

ready, free, settled, able

The subject and predicate (verb) are understood from context.

he called his family.

PREP + PREP PHRASE  

When he was in need,

in doubt, on a break, in trouble

The subject and predicate (verb) are understood from context.

he called his family.

WHILE + OTHER COMPLEMENTS

While can be followed by other structures besides a clause. The information of the clause can be shortened to a gerund (-ing), a prepositional phrase or an adjective. Missing information has to be guessed from context.                   

TIME-RELATED ACTIVITY OTHER ACTIVITY
PREP + CLAUSE MAIN CLAUSE

While he was talking with you,

(full clause)

he was watching his baby.

PREP + GERUND  

While he was talking with you,

The subject is understood as being the same subject as the main clause.

he was watching his baby.

PREP + ADJECTIVE  

While he was alert,

awake, asleep,

The subject and predicate (verb) are understood from context.

he was holding his baby.

PREP + PREP PHRASE  

While he was in conversation with you

on break, on duty, in (the) hospital

The subject and predicate (verb) are understood from context.

he was watching his baby.

 

complement — a word or structure that is required to complete the meaning expressed by another element or structure, for example, He fell __. (down is expected in order to complete the meaning).

Before/After accepts other complements: a clause, a gerund, a noun phrase, an adjective/participial adjective. Before arriving, we called. (gerund); Before our arrival, we called. (noun phrase). Before expected, we arrived on their doorstep. (participial adjective)

Also see While / When -ing | Prepositional Complements | Participial Adjectives -ed | Before, After & When

 

 

 

 

When / While – Other Expressions

Related activities with 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.

We were eating dinner while he was

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

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

 

(Murphy 119)

 

 

 

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. (interruption)

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

While driving, he called me. (reduced clause)

While he is watching television, she isn't able to (can't) read.

While he watches television, she does something else.

(Complete the focus activity.)

 

*not used

See When / While -ing (reduced clauses, verbless clauses)

 

 

 

 

 

► Show Grammar Notes and Works Cited ▼ Hide Grammar Notes

Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR

In traditional grammar, the adverbs when and while introduce adverbial clauses. They are called subordinating conjunctions, which in this case, join time-related clauses. The joined clause is 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, an infinitive phrase, a gerund phrase, or clause are not included in the definition of a prepositional phrase. The connective word is called a conjunction or subordinating conjunction

i.   He was driving to work while he was calling me.(adverbial clause = subordinating conj. + dependent clause)

ii.   He was driving to work while calling me.(adverbial clause = subordinating conj. + reduced clause)

iii. He was driving to work while on the phone. (adverbial clause = subordinating conj. + prepositional phrase)

 

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

Murphy lists these words in the table of Contents as "Conjunctions and Prepositions". No mention of grammar terms are used on  the practice pages. (113 - 120)

LINEAR DIAGRAM

Linear diagram: he was holding his baby while talking

LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

The following—while, when, though, although, if, as if, as though, whenever, once and whilst—are prepositions, which function as adjuncts (words that add extra information to a clause). They differ from prepositions that function as complements, which add information necessary in order to complete th meaning of the clause.

1) Preposition (functioning as an adjunct): He hung his coat up before sitting down.  (The main clause can stand independently.)

2) Preposition (functioning as a complement): He hung his coat on the hook. (The clause requires the prep. phrase to make sense.)

 

An adjunct preposition takes a finite clause, a nonfinite clause, or a prep. phrase as its complement.

i.   He was driving to work while he was calling me. (finite clause)

ii.  He was driving to work while calling me. (nonfinite clause)

iii.  He was driving to work while on the phone. (prep + prep. phrase) 

See Prepositional Complements for others.

Note that a large number of adverbs have been re-assigned to the category of Preposition, which allows a wide range of complement type. 

Other terms:

Temporal Location Adjuncts (after, before, since, when, while) 

Prepositions  (Huddleston 8 §6.3)

Conjunctions (Swan 73, 411.6, 30, 97)

Subordinator. Adverbial Clause (Biber 2.4.7.5)

Subordinator. Adverbial Clause (Quirk 15.28)

 

TREE DIAGRAM

Tree diagram:He was holding his baby while he was talking

 

Word Categories: N – noun; V – verb; Aux – auxiliary; Adj – adjective; Adv – adverb; P – preposition; Detdeterminer.

Phrasal Categories: NP – noun phrase; VP – verb phrase; AdjP – adjective phrase; AdvP – adverb phrase; PP – prepositional phrase; DP – determinative phrase.

Clausal Categories: Cls – clause; F – finite; NF – nonfinite (Ger – gerund; Inf – infinitive; PPart – past participle).

Word Functions: Subj – Subject; Pred – Predicate/Predicator; Compcomplement: elements required by an expression to complete its meaning (DO – direct object; IO – indirect object);  Adjunctadjunct elements not required by an expression to complete its meaning (Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator); Suplsupplement: a clause or phrase added to a clause but not closely related to the central thought or structure of the main clause.

 

 

 

Works Cited

  • 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.
  • Murphy, Raymond. English Grammar in Use. 5th ed., Cambridge UP. 2019.
  • 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.