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Same-time Events

WHILE
WHEN
While is followed by a clause with a same-time (simultaneous)
When is followed by a clause with an activity that (1) is a short
activity and includes a verb expressing duration². The while-clause
interruption, or (2) occurs at nearly the same time or shortly after the
often expresses a background activity to the focus-activity in the main
first activity. A nonprogressive verb form is more commonly (but
clause.
not always) used for activities of short duration¹.
SAME TIME
INTERRUPTION
While he was talking, he was holding his baby.
When you called, he was watching his baby.
(ongoing; "during the time")
(short interruption; "at the moment")

While he was talking, his baby slept.


When you called, he picked up his cell phone.
(ongoing; "during the time")
(series of events; "immediately after")
Interrupting Focus vs. Primary Focus

FOCUS IS AN INTERRUPTION FOCUS IS THIS ACTIVITY


Imagine a movie scene with a lot of people talking in a room, and When and while also draw attention to an activity. The activity in the
then the camera zooms in on one person. The person becomes the when or while clause tends to be the central focus for follow-up
subject of the foreground and the other people and activity move into conversation or comments. While is followed by verbs expressing
the background. In a similar way, when focuses on an interrupting ongoing, repetitive or detailed activities (punctual). When is followed
activity. Follow-up comments tend to focus on the foreground by verbs expressing duration (process).
activity. BACKGROUND FOREGROUND
BACKGROUND FOREGROUND FOCUS FOR CONVERSATION
FOCUS FOR CONVERSATION while we were discussing names.
He was holding his baby
when the phone rang.
He was holding his baby What names did you come up
Who called? with?
when the baby yawned. when/while they were still living
He was counting the babies fingers They were trying to conceive a in a small apartment in the city.
How cute! baby
when the baby was born. So did they move away?
Everyone quieted down when he was born.
What a moment! The baby's gender (sex) was
revealed They waited until the birth to find
out the gender?

backgrounding (Ger) – a grammatical term for moving something out of central focus and
into a position of less focus (less importance or less interest).

come up with (Phrasal Verb) – think of, put together, call to mind

conceive (V) – begin life (also, to form a notion, an opinion, a purpose, an idea)

interruption (N) – a stop or break in the middle of an activity; a discontinuance; interference


with action or speech

reveal (V) – announce publicly, make known to all

tends to be (V Expr.) – is more likely to be; is more expected to be

yawn (V) (N) – an involuntary action of opening the mouth widely and taking air into the
lungs
When / While
As, During Throughout, Meanwhile

Other expressions for when and while

WHEN
WHILE
SAME-TIME¹
SAME-TIME
We were eating at the moment he called.
We were eating dinner as he was talking / talked on his phone.
We were eating when he called. During the time that we were eating dinner, he was talking / talked on
his phone.
We were eating at the time he called. (point, instant)
He was talking / talked on his phone throughout the time that we were
We were eating when he called. eating.
We were eating whenever he called. (any time)
He was talking / talked on his phone at the same time that we were
We were eating when he called.
eating.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER²
He was talking / talked on his phone. Meanwhile, we were eating.
We stopped eating upon receiving his call. He was talking / talked on his phone during the time that we were
eating.
We stopped eating when we received his call. He was talking / talked on his phone all the while we were eating.
We stopped eating just as he called. (expression)

We stopped eating when he called


We complained immediately after he called.

We complained when he called.


We complained shortly after he called.

We complained when he called


Initial vs. Final Clause Placement

INITIAL CLAUSE PLACEMENT


FINAL CLAUSE PLACEMENT
A comma is placed after when+ clause if it is placed before the
main clause. The comma marks the separation of the two clauses. No comma is used if the when-clause is placed after
INDEPENDENT the main clause.
DEPENDENT CLAUSE DEPENDENT
CLAUSE INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
he was watching his CLAUSE
When you called, when you
baby. He was watching his baby
he was holding his called.
While he was talking, while he was
newborn. He was holding his newborn
talking.

newborn (N) — a very young baby (first few days)

The background activity is expressed in the independent clause.