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In what form should I put nonstative verbs with "when"? E.g.,

(1) You have to be careful when you cut a cake.

(2) You have to be careful when you are cutting a cake.

Is there a difference between the two? Do they both mean the same thing?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, these both essentially mean the same thing & could be used interchangeably.

I suppose there are subtle nuances if you overthink it though, so ... :)

The first sentence sounds a bit more like it refers to the entire act and ceremony of cake cutting: preparing to cut, planning where/how to cut so the pieces are equally sized, and then the actual act of cutting. It's like a rule for a student of the cake-cutting process.

The second sentence sounds more like it refers only to the specific time when you're in the act of cutting. It's like a gentle reminder that the knife is sharp, so be careful.

Another way it would be clearly different is when referring to a specific cake:

You have to be careful when you cut the cake (because it's the only one!).


You have to be careful when you cut a cake (because the knife is sharp).

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+1 Different phrasing leads to a shift of emphasis. – Kinzle B Aug 2 '14 at 3:46

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