When vs. While

'When' and 'while' are used to indicate two actions which is why learners may confuse them. In this lesson, we will learn when to use each of them.

"When" vs. "While" in the English grammar

What Is Their Main Difference?

The main difference between 'when' and 'while' is that 'when' expresses single actions but 'while' expresses continuous actions.

Parts of Speech

'When' and 'while' are used to connect clauses. 'When' is a conjunction. It is classified as subordinating conjunctions. 'While' is a conjunctive adverb.

I helped my mother around the house when I was home.

I was writing my essay while I talked to Larry on the phone.

'While' can be used as a noun. Note that 'while' cannot be used alone. It is often accompanied by 'in a...,' 'once in a...,' 'for a...,' and 'worth your....' In this case, 'while' is often used to indicate time.

You can wait here for a while.

I was hoping I could see you again in a while.

He just stopped there for a long while.

Indicating Time

'When' and 'while' are both used to show two actions that are happening at the same time. However, there is a small distinction that requires your attention.
'When' is used to express two single actions that happen simultaneously.
'While' is used to express two continuous actions that happen simultaneously.
If you pay close attention, you can see that 'when' and 'while' both express a condition and its results.

She was mad at me when I broke her favorite photo frame.

I was putting away the dishes while my friend was doing the laundry.

What would happen if we have two actions but one is single action and the other is continuous. In this case, we can use both. Watch:

He knocked on the door when I was sleeping.

He knocked on the door while I was sleeping.

Now if the subordinating conjunction is placed before the single action, we must use 'when.'

I was sleeping when he knocked on the door.

I was sleeping while he knocked on the door.


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