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Is there any difference between these two sentences?

I was eating when he came home.

and

He came home when I was eating.

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    I wouldn't say that there was a big difference in meaning between the two. However, "I was eating my dinner when he suddenly opened the door" sets the scene and then announces the surprise event, while "He finally arrived home when I was eating my dinner" puts more emphasis on the time of his arrival. Jun 17, 2023 at 12:52
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    The difference is the obvious one, what is at the start. Generally important information goes at the start.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 17, 2023 at 13:17
  • I'd expect the default unmarked choice to be 'He came home while I was eating'. 'I was eating when he came home' hints at something beyond mere simultaneity, perhaps a connection with a former event (It took me ages to cook the chicken. I was eating when he came home) or a habitual practice (My appetite had returned with a vengeance, and I phoned John to tell hime the good news. I had quite a few meals that day. I was eating when he came home.) Jun 17, 2023 at 13:38
  • Meaning wise, I think there's little difference here, but when you change the word order like that, more emphasis is given to the first part of the sentence. So the difference I think is mainly one of emphasis. Which you choose might also depend on context, what came before, the sequence of events, what/who the paragraph is mainly about, etc.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 17, 2023 at 13:52
  • Not very scientific, but the sequence When Kennedy was shot is much more common without that initial capital letter. Probably implying that people are more likely to say I was at work when Kennedy was shot than When Kennedy was shot I was at work. In contexts like this, we don't necessarily specify the more significant of two simultaneous events first. Jun 17, 2023 at 16:25

2 Answers 2

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In English, the first word/words of the sentence usually have more emphasis than later words. People pay the most attention to the beginning of each sentence and less to the end. This is because English prefers to place the subject first in the sentence. This isn't a rigid rule, but more like an advanced writing technique.

So if an author or speaker or storyteller said "I was eating when he came home," then the subject of the sentence is I and the focus is on the narrator.

Saying "He came home when I was eating" shows the exact same action, but makes He the subject and the focus of the story.

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    I'd be fascinated to know if there are any languages where the first words in an utterance don't normally have more emphasis than what follows. It's only a tendency anyway, but it seems to me it's unlikely languages vary much in that respect. I take your point that English prefers Subject + Verb + Object, though, and I'm sure not all languages share that preference to the same degree. Jun 17, 2023 at 16:29
  • Indeed! To me the first sentence sounds better than the second one. It's a strange focus especially when you tell something from your perspective, it's creates a dissonance to me. Jun 17, 2023 at 20:06
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Is there any difference between these two sentences?

As simple statements devoid of context, “No, there is no difference”: someone was eating; someone came home.

If the question is about when you would use each one, then there is a difference.

The subordinate clauses are adverbial to the main clause. The main clause contains the main information.

In the first, the question would be “What significance did your eating have to his coming home?”

And this might be: I was eating when he came home, so I did not tell him the bad news immediately.

In the second, the question would be “What significance did his arrival have to your eating?”

And this might be: “He came home when I was eating. He always arrives at an inconvenient time.”

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