When learning English, it is important to be careful about special conjunctions as well as tenses. Two most commonly used conjunctions are “when” and “while”. While “when” conjunction has the meaning of a completed action, “while” is more like a sustained action.
Generally, both “when” and “while” conjunctions are related to past tense. Whereas “while” emphasizes an act in certain times or continues in a determined time frame, “when” is used for actions in the past that do not last or instant actions.
However, you can see both of these conjunctions in the Simple Present Tense and Present Continuous Tense structures below.
Using When and While Conjunctions in a Sentence
- While John was driving home, he saw a great accident.
- While you are using acid solvents, you should be careful.
- When the doorbell rang, the old man was having a nap in the living room.
- When it rains heavily, all the streets and pavements around get muddy.
In the first example, “while” conjunction was used for connecting a Past Continuous Tense clause with a Simple Past Tense clause.
According to the second example, “while” conjunction is again used to connect the first clause with “should” modal verb with the second clause of this sentence.
In the third and fourth examples, you can see that “when” conjunction is used for connecting the meanings of two clauses into one sentence. According to the third example, the clause that starts with Simple Past Tense is connected to the second action formed with Past Continuous Tense and simultaneously continues in the past by using the “when” conjunction. In the fourth example, “when” conjunction is used for showing the relationship between two actions that both happen in Simple Present Tense.
While and Past Continuous Tense
The “while” conjunction is used for expressing the two actions that continue in the past.
These are the sentences in which the same or different objects carried out an action while an action is on-going in the past and that interrupts or intervenes with the first action.
- While I was making a birthday cake, a bee flew in the kitchen through the open window.
- While I was making the birthday cake, I poured a glass of salt instead of sugar into it.
The second action will happen while the first one happens. And this will disrupt the continuity of the first action. The important thing here is this: while the continuous action (to make a cake) is represented with Past Continous Tense, the short-term action (to flow in / to pour) is defined with Simple Past Tense.
So, the formulation of actions in this sentence can be summarized as follows:
- (While) + (Past Continuous Tense) + (,) (Simple Past Tense)
- (Simple Past Tense) + (while) + (Past Continuous Tense)
The same sentence can be rewritten as in the second formulation when “while” and emphasized clause are consecutive.
- A bee flew in the kitchen through the open window while I was making a birthday cake.
- I poured a glass of salt instead of sugar into the birthday cake while I was making it.
You might have noticed the comma in the first formulation. In sentences that start with either when or while, the clause after the conjunctions is separated from the second clause with a comma. But if “when” or “while” is used in the second section rather than at the beginning of a sentence, you do not need to separate the clauses with a comma. While this important thing looks like a grammar rule, you can see that the comma supports the correct English meaning when the sentence unity is considered.
While and Two Long-Term Actions
The second case with Past Continuous Tense and “while” is used for describing two actions sustained by two different objects in the same time frame. Since two actions that meet this condition are continuous, or since they are long-term actions, both of them are expressed in Past Continuous Tense.
- While I was relaxing at the hotel, Tom and John were surfing over the waves.
- Phil was trying to mend his car while his brother was curiously watching him.
- Flight attendants were checking our tickets while we were gazing at the control panels in front of us.
The second formulation can be summarized as follows:
- (While) + (Object-1) + (Past Continuous Tense / Action-1), (Object-2) + (Past Continuous Tense / Action-2)
- (Object-1) + (Past Continuous Tense / Action-1) + (While) + (Object-2) + (Past Continuous Tense / Action-2)
Using As Instead of While
The third formulation for “while” and Past Continuous Tense include sentence in which “as” conjunction is used instead of “while”.
- As they were walking along the street, they met a fantastic view of a shining Christmas tree.
- As I was waiting for the bus, I met my best schoolfriend.
In both English examples, “as” conjunction can be used instead of “while”. Both conjunctions are placed before the long-term action or before the action interrupted by the other one. Thus, these emphasize the continuity.
When and Simple Past Tense
In fact, “when” and “while” conjunction usage shows a highly ruled structure. You need to check how these two conjunctions are used to express the actions to understand how long- and short-term actions are linked in English.
You need to remember that while “when” is similar to “while” conjunction, it has a wider usage area. These areas can be summarized with three different formulations:
As you can see in “while” conjunction, “when” conjunction has an important function to compare two short- and long-term actions in English. But the tip here is that short-term action is used in Simple Past Tense and the “when” conjunction is placed before the action to emphasize this action. The comma in “while” is also a valid property for the “when” conjunction.
- When the doorbell rang, I was sleeping.
- John was playing the guitar when Linda came in.
- (When) + (Simple Past Tense) (,) (Past Continuous Tense)
- (Past Continuous Tense) (When) + (Simple Past Tense)
The second case is using the “when” conjunction to emphasize the order of two short-term actions. Here, the “when” conjunction emphasizes the first continuous action rather than interrupting actions.
- When they went into the room, they saw the surprise.
- When the teacher summoned me, I put down my pen and handed my exam paper.
- (When) + (Simple Past Tense) (,) (Simple Past Tense)
The third and the last case is using the “when” conjunction to connect an action with another past action to express a past time frame. This conjunction determines the past tense of another action instead of using adverb of time.
- Mike used to speak four languages when he started primary school.
- When Mike started primary school, he used to speak four languages.
- (When) + (Object) + (Simple Past Tense / Action-1), (Object) + (Simple Past Tense / used to / Modal / Action-2)
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