A common grammar question that I receive often on the blog is, what is the difference between while vs when? Are they the same? Can I use them interchangeably?
Well in this next post, we are going to address that question. Be sure to check out our while vs when exercises at the end to make sure that you clearly understand the differences between these two words.
While vs When – What Is The Difference?
Generally, when is used to describe an action that has a clear start and end. While is used to describe an action that has a longer duration or an action that was in progress. Oftentimes, when is followed by a verb in the past simple, and while is followed by a verb in its continuous form.
To better understand the differences between these two words, let’s take a look at some examples.
“While she was doing her homework, I washed the dishes.”
In this example, we have two actions happening at the same time. The girl is doing her homework and the mom is washing the dishes. In this sentence, while is used because we want to express a longer duration of time.
Obviously, the little girl didn’t finish her homework at that moment, it took her some time. Perhaps she worked on her homework for an hour or more. To convey that thought it would be better to use the word while.
“When the phone rang the boy was startled.”
In this example, there is no need to express the duration of time because this action has a clear start and the action ended. The very moment that the phone rang the boy was scared. For that reason, it would be better to use when. To understand this better, let’s think a little more about this sentence.
Think about this, how many times did the phone ring? For how long did the phone ring? We don’t know exactly. We just know that the precise moment that the phone rang is when the boy was scared. It wasn’t a long duration of time. Perhaps it only rang once and scared the boy.
Let’s look at another example.
“While the phone was ringing, I washed the dishes.
In this example, how many times did the phone ring? Again we do not know exactly, but we do know that it was more than just once. How do we know that? We know that because while was used. It is used to convey a longer duration of time.
“When her cellphone rang, Julie answered it.”
How many times did the phone ring? We don’t know exactly, but we do know that it didn’t ring many times. How do we know that? Once again, because when is used. It is used to convey the idea that the action has a clear start and it ended. We understand that at the very moment that the phone rang, Julie answered it.
So as we can see from these examples, generally when is used to express that an action just happened or that the action went on for a very short duration. While is used to convey a longer duration.
Important note. Please keep in mind that the duration of the action is subjective to the speaker. That is why sometimes one native speaker might use when in a sentence while another speaker might use while. It just means that he could view the action as a shorter duration.
To better understand the differences between when vs while, let’s take a look at some common mistakes.
While vs When Common Mistakes
“While I was 16 years old, I got my driver’s license”
What is wrong with this sentence? Did you catch the mistake? Age has a clear start and end. In fact, if we look at a calendar, we would know exactly when that person turned sixteen years old and when they turned 17 years old.
For that reason, it is unnatural to say, “while someone was a specific age”. It would be better to use when.
The correct sentence would be: “When I was 16 years old, I got my driver’s license”
“Please cover your mouth while coughing”
What is wrong with this mistake? Did you catch it?
We know that a person doesn’t cough nonstop. We don’t want to convey that the action was going on for a long duration. This action clearly has a start and an end. For that reason, when would be the better option.
The correct sentence: “Please cover your mouth when coughing.”
“While I was a kid, I liked to play basketball.”
What is wrong with this sentence? Did you catch the mistake?
Even though being a kid was over a long period of time, it has a start and a finish. For that reason, when would be the better option.
Keep in mind when using the verb to be whether in the present or in the past, we are expressing a status. A status verb generally has a start and an end. For that reason, when is always used with status verbs.
The correct sentence: “When I was a kid, I liked to play basketball.”
How are you doing so far? Do you understand the differences between when vs while?
Let’s put your knowledge to the test in the exercises below. Please keep in mind the answers are below.
While vs When Exercises
- He answered the door _______ the doorbell rang.
- He was watching TV _______, he mom was cooking dinner.
- _______ I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a doctor.
- He likes to listen to music _______ working.
- Call me _______ you want to play basketball.
- Please be careful _______ driving.
- Sulley jumped on him _______ opened the door.
- I am sorry, I couldn’t answer the phone. I was cooking dinner _______ the phone rang.
- My dog was lying in bed _______ I was making breakfast.
- I fell off the bed _______ he told me the story.
- _______ he was telling me the story, I fell off my bed.
- He called _______ I was playing basketball, but I couldn’t answer.
- I laughed _______ I saw his outfit.
While vs When Answer Sheet
- When/While could both be used. Depends on the person’s perspective of the duration of the drive.
There you have it! The differences between while vs when. Do you have any questions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.