The Difference: When vs. While (English Grammar)

What’s the difference between the subordinate conjunctions when and while?

When & While: The Short Answer

In some sentences, you can use either without a great change in meaning. Generally, if you want to focus on an action that has a duration being in progress, use a while + a progressive tense.

While I was washing the dishes, my wife came home.(Washing the dishes has a duration, e.g. 4 minutes.)

(*Note you can also use when here, but as a general rule, while is suitable.)

In other cases when you don’t need to emphasize that an action was in progress or the action is short and without a significant duration, use when and a simple tense.

When it started to rain, we went inside. (The action started is short; it is not something in progress).

Here are some tips on the use of these two conjunctions.

Tip #1: Use a Progressive (Continuous) Tense with While to Show Focus


Progressive tenses use the BE verb + a verb in ~ing form.

While I was cooking dinner, the phone rang.

I will be sleeping at 11:00 p.m. tonight, so don’t phone me.

We use while to focus on an action happening at a specific time. Therefore, the most natural verb tense to use is a progressive tense, which shows that an action is in progress at a certain time.

It is common to use while with actions happening at a specific time (e.g. at 11 p.m.). Also, we use while to show that a shorter action (usually in the past simple, e.g. the phone rang) happened during as a longer action (usually in past progressive, e.g. I was cooking dinner). Often this shorter action interrupts the longer action.

Past progressive timeline with while

A sensible rule is to use while with the progressive tenses and when with the simple tenses.

Tip #2: Use While with Actions that have a Limited Duration


  1. When I was a child, I played soccer. (Correct)
  2. While I was a child, I played soccer. (Not natural)

Why is #2 not natural? Well, when an action is too long (e.g. I was a child), we lose focus. The period of twelve years when you were a child is too long to use a progressive tense. We don’t use ‘while’ to talk about long periods of our lives. Instead, we use when and past simple. There’s another reason.


Tip #3: Use While with Action Verbs

Also, “While I was a child” is unnatural because the BE verb (was a child) is a state verb. State verbs are not action verbs (e.g. jump, kick, shower, drink). Instead, state verbs describe states or conditions (e.g. BE, live, understand, know, exist). We do not use progressive tenses with state verbs. As a result, we generally don’t use while with state verbs.

Compare:

While she was driving, I played with the radio. (Natural)

This is correct. Driving is an action verb and the action is limited in duration. In other words, driving is a short activity that has a clear start and end.

While When I lived in my hometown, my mother made me dinner. (While is not natural)

Live is a state verb, and also, the action of living in my hometown probably had a duration of 18 years. This is too long to focus on.

Exception: Focusing on an Verb in Progress

You could use while with a state verb like ‘live’ if you really want to focus on the fact that an action was in progress at a specific time. For example:

While I was living in India, there was a big earthquake.

Although it would probably be more common to use When I lived in India, this sentence is correct. The speaker chooses to use ‘While’ + present progressive’ to focus on an action being in progress (living) when another action happened.

Remember: While Means an Action Had a Start and an End (a Duration)

If a sentence uses while, it suggests that the action happened over a period of time. Here’s are two better examples to show what I mean:

When the phone rang, I was making lunch.

The longer action (making lunch) was happening when a shorter action happened (phone rang).

Key question: How many times did the phone ring? Because we’re using when, we don’t know. The use of when doesn’t suggest it was an ongoing action. The phone may have rang once and stopped.

While the phone was ringing, I was making lunch.

How many times did the phone ring here? More than once. Because we are using While + present progressive, we are focusing on duration. This means that the action (ring) happened over a period of time that had a start and end. When we say ‘the phone was ringing’ in the progressive, we are saying that this happened for some time. (Thanks to Clive at Englishforums for this point.)

While vs. When: In Conclusion

We can conclude the following:

  1. To emphasize (focus) that an action was in progress at a specific time, use while + a progressive tense ( = While I was eating, …)
  2. Otherwise, use when + a simple tense. (= When I ate, …)
  3. Verbs with while have a duration. The period of the verb cannot be too long or we lose focus.  (= While I was a child = When I was a child)
  4. Progressive tenses use action verbs, so use while with an action verb (While I was dancing) and not a state verb (While I was hungry)

 

I hope these ideas have been useful. Remember, these are general tips (not fixed rules). There will be exceptions depending on what the speaker wants to emphasize. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

— Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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28 comments on “The Difference: When vs. While (English Grammar)

  1. blue blue sky (Posted on 11-30-2017 at 01:16) Reply

    great

  2. Reene (Posted on 7-18-2018 at 03:59) Reply

    Very helpful and precise !

  3. Carla (Posted on 8-20-2018 at 19:57) Reply

    Thank You! Awesome article.

  4. Mehedi (Posted on 10-12-2018 at 21:23) Reply

    Thank you.

    1. Twan (Posted on 3-10-2020 at 08:38) Reply

      GOOD explanation

  5. Roberta (Posted on 5-17-2019 at 02:49) Reply

    Crystal clear! Thank you very much!

  6. hadi (Posted on 9-12-2019 at 07:30) Reply

    thank you
    i have a question is there any differences between these sentences:
    while she was cooking , i was studying
    when she was cooking , i was studying

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 9-12-2019 at 14:17) Reply

      Hello. The meaning is basically the same.

      1. Subramanian S (Posted on 2-10-2020 at 23:28) Reply

        This is fantastic ,, wow
        I really got what I want

    2. Khelil ebdelleh (Posted on 7-21-2020 at 04:26) Reply

      If you folow thé difenition ,focus on you will figure out everything
      Becuse i do think thet you miss understend such es thé période of cooking it wes not long so you re eble to ennonce thé first enswers to be thé correct one

  7. Mahla (Posted on 10-29-2019 at 07:52) Reply

    Thank you so much it really helped me :-)

  8. Nigus (Posted on 12-6-2019 at 16:41) Reply

    Very interesting

    1. Mary (Posted on 8-13-2020 at 13:02) Reply

      That’s really helpful!

  9. Muaz husein (Posted on 1-1-2020 at 19:49) Reply

    Thank you very much.I have got what I need.

  10. Jan (Posted on 1-2-2020 at 20:54) Reply

    Thankyou very much! A good easy-to-follow rule for students.

  11. mr Awol (Posted on 1-12-2020 at 08:31) Reply

    Thank you very much

  12. bakhita saleem (Posted on 1-12-2020 at 15:06) Reply

    It’s great and helpfully

  13. ROBERTO (Posted on 1-23-2020 at 13:34) Reply

    I’M ROBERTO THIS IS MORE DIFFICULT I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND.

  14. Zrouq Turk (Posted on 2-13-2020 at 15:22) Reply

    Thank you so much

  15. Yossef (Posted on 2-22-2020 at 09:31) Reply

    Thank you

  16. hassan (Posted on 2-23-2020 at 23:12) Reply

    thanks so much for this explanation

  17. Consuelo (Posted on 2-24-2020 at 11:26) Reply

    Thank you so much

  18. lenq (Posted on 4-26-2020 at 02:18) Reply

    thank you for the detail explanation.

  19. IRENE WICKREMASINGHE (Posted on 6-14-2020 at 02:48) Reply

    THANKS SO
    .IT IS VERY CLEAR.
    IRENE

  20. Dan (Posted on 6-16-2020 at 23:39) Reply

    Can you think of any examples when it is wrong to use when and you have to use while?

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 6-17-2020 at 11:47) Reply

      No, I can’t!

  21. Rumi (Posted on 8-6-2020 at 11:19) Reply

    ❤❤very clear.

  22. Sankarachari Kalikota (Posted on 9-30-2020 at 07:32) Reply

    Phone ringing 30 seconds- is a short action
    While cooking takes 360 seconds- is a long action
    it is an answer to a friend comment.
    so need not change the example.

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