My mother almost consistently uses "while" when she means "until", and vice versa. (This is because in her native language, those are the same word.) Obviously, I can't simply tell her, "whichever word you were about to say, choose the other one", because that would just make her second-guess herself all the time, even when she happened to choose the correct word in the first place (see above about almost consistently). What I need is a mnemonic or other device that will unequivocally help her determine the right word to use in a given situation.

Does anyone here teach English to native speakers who encounter this issue? What device or trick can you suggest for keeping these two words straight?

  • Ways to present this information to my mother in such a way as to make her receptive rather than defensive would also be appreciated, but I realize that's probably getting a bit off-topic.
    – Martha
    Feb 21, 2013 at 17:52

5 Answers 5


What about the concise, memorable, and conveniently alliterative expression WHILE YOU WAIT, which is sometimes seen on business signs?

while you wait signs

If someone can remember that three-word phrase (and the pictures I've added might help someone do just that), then it might be easier for them to remember how while would be the word that means "during some time interval."

Once you get one half of a confusing pair straight in your mind, the other half pretty much falls into place by default. But if you wanted something more, you could simply imagine the business owner saying:

I can fix this while you wait; you won't pay until I'm done.


The key distinction that you need her to recall is that while is used with durations, but until is used with (relatively instantaneous) events. You should be able to replace while with during the time that in most cases:

I can't help you while my daughter is crying.

is the same as

I can't help you during the time that my daughter is crying.

Changing from while to until pretty drastically alters the meaning of the sentence....

I can't help you until my daughter is crying.

is the same as

I can't help you before my daughter starts crying.

Since "a while" is defined as "a period of time", a possible mnemonic could be "While takes a while; until takes a time." (I should say, though, that it seems clever, memorable and useful to me as a native speaker, but I have no idea (yet) whether it will help a learner.)

  • "...it seems clever, memorable and useful to me as a native speaker...": this is my problem, too. (Technically speaking, English wasn't my first language, but it is the language I am most fluent in.) I would no more mix up "while" and "until" than I would mix up, say, "apple" and "nobody"; so all of my explanations boil down to a plaintive "but they mean different things", which is hardly helpful.
    – Martha
    Feb 21, 2013 at 19:14

Just tell her to shift the n a couple of notches along in the alphabet to p...

until = up 'til


How about these idioms?

  1. Strike while the iron is hot
  2. Until you're blue in the face

Both their meanings are clear, they are short and easy to memorise and you could always tell your mother every time she mixes the two:

"I can tell you they're different until I'm blue in the face but you never remember!":P

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Strike+while+the+iron+is+hot http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/until+are+blue+in+the+face


"While" refers to an timeline where the starting and ending points are not specified.

I was ironing while watching the TV.
I will read a book while taking the train.

The starting and stopping points are not specified.

"Until" refers to an timeline where the ending point is known.

I was watching TV until my brother came into the room.
I will run until I get tired.

Here the stopping point is specified.

I'm not big on mnemonics or tricks when learning a language, its better to understand the usage based on the situation being described. If she understands whether the situation being described has a starting point, ending point, both or neither, I think she can pick the correct usage.
My mother was not a native English speaker, and made a lot of mistakes while I was growing up, so I can relate to your situation. I just tried to help as much as possible.

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