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Example 1

While I was at the restaurant, I browsed the menu and ordered the food.

Example 2

When I was at the restaurant, I browsed the menu and ordered the food.

Do they mean the same thing?

I remember "when“ indicates a longer period of time, "when I was a kid," "when I was in high school," etc.

Can "when" be used like Example 2?

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  • 'I remember "when" indicates a longer period of time'. When did you hear that? Have you never read something like: “I was at work yesterday when suddenly the roof collapsed”.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 9, 2023 at 8:25
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    I would say that "while" generally indicates a longer period of time. "When" indicates a long period of time only when the context says so. Because of context "When" and "while" are interchangeable in your example, but only because of context. Nov 9, 2023 at 12:27
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    @timchessish Interesting. To me, "While I was at the restaurant..." suggests I wasn't there long, maybe just meeting someone there, but "When I was at the restaurant..." implies I stayed for a full meal.
    – gotube
    Nov 10, 2023 at 5:12
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    @gotube wouldn't disagree at all with that. Nov 10, 2023 at 9:30

2 Answers 2

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'While' is used to indicate that two things are happening simultaneously over a period of time:

  • I sing while in the shower.
  • I listened to the radio while I drove to work.

'When' is used to indicate a broader time frame during which an event occurred. It can indicate two events coinciding. It can also indicate causality (that one action or event caused another):

  • When I was young I broke my arm.
  • When I went to the store I ran into my friend.
  • When I raise my arm, it hurts.

Your example is a series of 2 events - browsing the menu, and then ordering food. Both these these happened while you were at the restaurant, but not at the same time and not for the entire time. The problem with your sentence is more about logical progression than grammatical structure, and I don't think it can be fixed simply by changing the one word.

This conveys all that you are saying in a more logical way:

I browsed the menu at the restaurant for a while before ordering

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While I was at the restaurant, I browsed the menu and ordered the food.

Example 2

When I was at the restaurant, I browsed the menu and ordered the food.

They do not mean the same thing.

"while" means: during the period of time I was at the restaurant. "when" just tells us the point in time that the browsing and ordering occured.

while in Oxford Languages via google:

noun 1. a period of time. "we chatted for a while"

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