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I didn't want to go out as I was reading a book.

I didn't want to go out while/because I was reading a book.

What does "as" mean in this sentence? How can I know if "as" means "while" or "because" here? What about this sentence?

I can't go out as I am busy.

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I don't want to go out as I was reading a book. I can't go out as I am busy. The use of "as" in both sentences may mean while or because. Whether it means while or because depends on the context. – Khan Mar 8 at 19:51

I didn't want to go out while I was reading a book.

Here while indicates concurrent actions.

I didn't want to go out because I was reading a book.

Here because indicates cause and effect.

Using as could be either one, as you can see in the definitions of as:

6) at the same time that; while" ⇒ she laughed as she spoke"
7) because; since" ⇒ as you object, we won't go"

Context is needed to know what was meant. Or, just don't use as in such situations.

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+1 for Or, just don't us as in such situations. I definitely approve of trying to reduce ambiguity! – childofsoong Mar 8 at 18:23
    
Note that a comma would also disambiguate. I didn't want to go out, as I was reading a book would only mean because. – 200_success Mar 8 at 22:09

Although you could interpret it as "while" and have it make sense, in this case, I would say it means "because". If you consult Learner's Dictionary, you'll find the fifth definition for 'as' used as a conjunction is:

formal : for the reason that : because

  • She stayed home as she had no car.
  • As I'm a pacifist, I'm against all wars.

The reason I wouldn't interpret it as "while" is because I think it sounds odd to use it that way without the progressive form (however, there's no rule that it can't be done). The following sentence is an example of where I would interpret it as "while":

As I was going to the store, she was driving to work.

As you can see, 'as' is a very versatile word, so it has a lot of uses (for instance, I've used it multiple times in answering your question!)

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