When to Use WHILE and WHEN

 

Usually we use WHILE when there are two long actions. We can use progressive or simple tenses with while.

Usually we use WHEN if one action is long and the other is short, or if there are two short actions. We also use when if we talk about periods of our life (eg.: When I was 12 …)

 

1. He runs to his office every morning. Most people either drive or take public transport to work.

– runs to his office every morning = long action

– either drive or take public transport to work = long action

So we’d say,

He runs to his office every morning while most people either drive or take public transport to work.

 

2. It was raining. I was walking in the park.

– It was raining = long action.

– I was walking in the park = long action

So we’d say,

It was raining while I was walking in the park.

 

3. I saw lightning. I heard thunder.

– saw lightning = short action

– heard thunder = short action

So we’d say,

I saw lightning when I heard thunder.

 

4. We were having dinner. The telephone rang.

– having dinner = long action

– phone rang = short action.

So we’d say,

We were having dinner when the telephone rang.

 

5. The alarm bell rang. He was sleeping.

– He was sleeping = long action

– alarm bell rang = long or short action (Did it ring for a short time? Did it ring for a long time?)

 

It is unclear whether they are both long actions. So we can use when or while.

  • The alarm bell rang while she was sleeping.

  • The alarm bell rang when she was sleeping.

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