The Difference: In the meantime vs Meanwhile

Students often have problems understanding the difference between the conjunctive adverbs in the meantime and meanwhile. The two terms are not used in the exactly the same way. Here’s a quick summary:

  • In the meantime AND meanwhile both can mean in the time between two events/times.
  • Meanwhile can also mean at the same time (as another event/action).

Below is a detailed explanation.

In the meantime

In the meantime

the meantime = the period between two events/times.

Imagine you will take a flight. It will arrive in Chicago at 8:00 p.m. After it arrives, you have to catch another airplane to go to New York at 9:00 p.m. The time between 8:00 – 9:00 pm is the meantime. Here are some example sentences for this situation:

  • In the meantime between flights, I decided to eat some food.
  • I didn’t have anything to do in the meantime, so I watched TV until my flight at 9 o’clock.

In other words, the meantime is the gap between two times. One of these times is often the present. For example, imagine is it 7:00, and you have to leave for school at 7:10. In this case, the meantime is the time between 7:00-7:10. Here are some example sentences:

  • I didn’t have to leave for 10 minutes, so in the meantimeI checked my e-mail.
  • In the meantime before my bus came, I reviewed my class notes.

Let’s look at some examples to prove this point.

1. The store will close in two months. In the meantime, they are trying to sell all their products.

What is the meantime here? It is the two months between now and when the store will close.

2. The chicken needed to be cooked for another 30 minutes, so in the meantime, we decided to wash some of the dishes.

What’s the meantime here? It is the 30 minutes between the time of action and when the chicken would ready.

Notes:

  1. The word ‘meantime’ is rarely used by itself nowadays. The word is almost always used in the phrase in the meantime.
  2. The phrase For the meantime is sometimes used, and it has the same meaning as In the meantime. A more common expression using for is for the time being. For example:
    • It was raining, so we decided to stay inside for the meantime. (OK – not so common)
    • It was raining, so we decided to stay inside in the meantime. (OK – common)
    • It was raining, so we decided to stay inside for the time being. (OK – common)

What’s the meantime in this example? The time from now until it stops raining.

Meanwhile

This adverb has two meanings.

1. meanwhile = the period between two events/times

In this sense, it is the same as in the meantime. For example:

  • I didn’t have to leave for 10 minutes, so meanwhileI checked my e-mail. (OK)
  • I didn’t have to leave for 10 minutes, so in the meantimeI checked my e-mail. (Also OK)

2. Meanwhile = at the same time (as another action/event)

meanwhile timeline

This is meaning is different from in the meantime, and it is most often how Meanwhile is used. For example:

  • The man was brushing his teeth. Meanwhile, his wife was sleeping. ( = at the same time)
  • I was driving to work. Meanwhile, someone was breaking into my house. ( = at the same time)

In these sentences, it is not natural to use in the meantime because you are not talking about a period between two events. We use meanwhile to describe to events happening at the same time.

Here’s a comparison that shows the difference in meaning between the two phrases.

  • I’ll vacuum the house. Meanwhile, you can clean the bathroom. (You can clean it at the same time).
  • I’ll vacuum the house. In the meantime, you can clean the bathroom. (By using ‘in the meantime’ here, it means the speaker is talking about the time between when you starting vacuuming and finish. In between these times, you can clean the bathroom).

Therefore, both phrases are possible, but they have a different meaning. In the other examples, in the meantime is not possible.

  • The man was brushing his teeth. Meanwhile, his wife was sleeping. (at the same time)
  • The man was brushing his teeth. In the meantime, his wife was sleeping. (this means she completed the action of sleeping between the time he started brushing his teeth and finished. This is too short a time to sleep, so it is a strange sentence)

Summary: In the meantime vs. Meanwhile

To talk about the gap or period between two events, use:

  • in the meantime
  • meanwhile

To talk about something happening at the same time as another event/action, use

  • meanwhile

Do you think you understand? Take the Meantime vs. Meanwhile Quiz below.

  1. It was raining in the city in the afternoon. , it was sunny in the countryside.
  2. John knew he had to wait 30 more minutes, so he decided to read the newspaper .
  3. “You set up the tent. , I will build a fire.”
  4. Lisa will go to Japan in July. , she has decided to start studying Japanese.
Show Answers and Explanation
  1. Meanwhile (only answer; these events are happening at the same time)
  2. in the meantime (or meanwhile, but it is unusual to have meanwhile at the end of a sentence)
  3. In the meantime OR meanwhile. (Both are possible. If you are talking about two actions at the same time, use meanwhile. If you want to the person to build the fire from between the time when you start setting up the tent and finish, use in the meantime)
  4. In the meantime or meanwhile (there is a gap here between now and July)

I hope this has clarified the difference between meanwhile and in the meantime. If you find a mistake or have a question, please leave a comment below.

— Created by Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (copyright)

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