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.
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
- When I was a child, I played soccer. (Correct)
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.
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 a 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:
- To emphasize (focus) that an action was in progress at a specific time, use while + a progressive tense ( = While I was eating, ...)
- Otherwise, use when + a simple tense. (= When I ate, ...)
- 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)
- 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
Wonderful teaching! can you post some activities based on it??
Hello. I don’t have any specific activities for when vs while. All the best. MB
Very helpful and precise !
Thank You! Awesome article.
Crystal clear! Thank you very much!
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
Hello. The meaning is basically the same.
This is fantastic ,, wow
I really got what I want
If you folow th© difenition ,focus on you will figure out everything
Becuse i do think thet you miss understend such es th© p©riode of cooking it wes not long so you re eble to ennonce th© first enswers to be th© correct one
Thank you so much it really helped me :-)
That’s really helpful!
Thank you very much.I have got what I need.
Thankyou very much! A good easy-to-follow rule for students.
Thank you very much
It’s great and helpfully
I’M ROBERTO THIS IS MORE DIFFICULT I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND.
Thank you so much
thanks so much for this explanation
Thank you so much
thank you for the detail explanation.
.IT IS VERY CLEAR.
Can you think of any examples when it is wrong to use when and you have to use while?
No, I can’t!
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.
Which one is correct? The first or the second.
While they were washing the dishes, she did her homework.
When they were washing the dishes, she did her homework.
Please read the page. It is about the question you are asking.
Thank you. Your explanation really helps me when I have to teach my adult students.
A wonderful effort
when+simple present tense , progressive past tense
is this possible????
I don’t think so. Two actions cannot occur at the same time if one is in the present and one is in the past. Please try to make an example sentence.
I agree with the author. Both ‘while ‘ and ‘when’ sometimes can be used without any difference in meaning although ‘While’ sounds more suitable.
Here are a few examples:
– She hurt herself when / while she was playing basketball.
– A car crashed into a tree when/ while I was crossing the street.
In my understanding, we use “while” when the focus is on the duration or progress. On the other hand, we use ‘when’ to give emphasis on the time or when something happened.
For example, the sentence’ She hurt her ankle when she was playing basketball’ is probably intended to respond to when she hurt her ankle.
Am I right?
Hello. Re: “She hurt her ankle when she was playing basketball.” I’m not sure it’s necessarily to ‘respond to when’ she hurt her ankle. As you said, these two conjunctions (when/while) can be used interchangeably sometimes. If we change it to “while” she was playing basketball, the sentence is essentially the same, but you could probably argue that ‘while’ focuses on the idea that basketball was _in progress_ at that time (though this is already obvious).
it is too easy assay and very beautiful showing which using simple words to display the idea of these similar conjunctions .
Thanks a lot.
Please I m asking if while match with present continuous
Yes. Present progressive and present continuous are the same tense. As per the lesson above, ‘while’ is often used with the continuous (progressive) tenses. Can you try to write an example sentence? Also, your sentence should say ‘matches’, not ‘match’.
While I cooked, I wrote book . Is the given sentence correct ??
It’s more natural to use “While I was cooking, I wrote a book.” (notice the use of past progressive verb tense, and the ‘a’ before book). Also, when you say “I wrote a book”, it means you wrote an entire book, which is sometime that usually takes a year. Therefore, this idea is a little strange. Maybe you mean “I wrote in a book”?
While building a bridge they faced some difficulties building-gerund or participle? Thanks
Thank you for your encouragement
is my sentence correct?
when i was living in England, i took a course on english language.
while I was living in England I took a course on english language
when I lived in England I took a course on english language
when I had been living in England I took a course on english language.
The answer to your question can be found in the above page. Please read it and try to find the answer.
while I was living in England I took a course on the English language – ** while I was living in England I WAS TAKING a course on the English language (Past Continues)” it has the same meaning as “when I lived in England, I took a course on the English language”(Past simple)
Honestly, I found the information very much confusing. I am trying to teach a person English and was going to teach how to use when/while but all of the information online shows me different answers. Some pages say, when + short action and while + long action, and this page says the contrary.
It real confuss english learners especially those english is L2.
I’ve been an ESL Teacher for 20+ years…a simple (for dummies if you will) explanation I use for the better usage of WHEN vs. WHILE in PAST CONTINUES…is WHEN is used when an action/event #1 was interrupted by action/event #2 ( I was reading a book (event#1) WHEN my phone rang (event #2) ) I use WHILE when 2 actions/events are happening at the same time ( WHILE I WAS READING a book, He WAS PLAYING a video game.)…when teaching the usage of these two words, I don’t emphasize on TIME or duration cause it will confuse Eng. learners.
Mixing WHILE with Past Simple is the ROOT of confusion for English learners.
Thank you so much.It cleared my doubt.