I'm talking about all of common conjunctions like 'when' or 'until', by the time.

For example for 'when':

  1. He fell off the ladder when he saw the flash .
    In this case, the dependent sentence happened first and then he fell off the ladder.

  2. I was running when l fell down.
    The dependent sentence wasn't the first action that happened, it was the second one.

So I want to know how I can get which dependent clause happened first so I can understand the meaning of sentence better (and my question isn't only about the 'when' conjunction but all of the common conjunctions).

  • 1
    Actually, your analysis of the first sentence is wrong. In that usage, as in many, stand is a verb of state rather than of action. That’s why we often say stand up when we wish to be clear that we mean adopt an upright posture rather than persist in an upright posture. To clearly (unambiguously) express the meaning you took from the sentence, that Rita took an action as a result of the rain’s commencing, we would probably say something like Rita went and stood… And to unambiguously express the stative meaning, something like Rita was standing Dec 1, 2023 at 15:19
  • I am not sure I understand your question. The first action in your second sentence is: I was running. The second action is: I fell down. Is that what you mean??
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 15:25
  • The logic would be the same in your language, too.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 15:41
  • No In my first example,l don't mean the first action is in continuous from but actually, both action are in past simple from . l find my first example from Understanding and using English grammar by Betty s. Azar (page 16) so l don't think my first example is wrong. Dec 1, 2023 at 16:30
  • ell.stackexchange.com/users/107493/paul-tanenbaum So if l want to say that it was raining and then Rita went and stood under the tree l can't use both in simple past form, l should say something like "It was running when Rita went and stood under tree" is it right? Or l get it all wrong and l find this example in my English grammar book and it's all written in English,it not even is from my native country, so l don't think it's lessons are wrong 😢 Dec 1, 2023 at 16:47

1 Answer 1


As far as I understand it, the basic meaning of "when" is to indicate the time that characterizes something else, but doesn't by itself say what this time relationship is. "When" also often implies additional notions, such as causality or a background supposition.

He fell off the ladder when he saw the flash.

Here, both clauses indicate a point in time. The default understanding is that points in time follow each other. "When" is followed immediately by the point in time that occurs first and often implies causality: i.e., seeing the flash caused him to fall off the ladder. If you replace "when" with "after," you would stress the temporal sequence and remove any default assumption of causality.

When he fell off the ladder, he saw the flash.

Here again, there are two points in time, and again the default understanding is that one precedes the other. The position of "when" indicates that the fall precedes seeing the flash and implies that the fall somehow enabled the person to see the flash.

I was running when I fell down.

Here the first clause describes a stretch of time and the second describes a point in time. The default understanding is that the stretch of time includes the point in time. Often, the action described as a point of time concludes the action described as a stretch of time, but this is left to context.

This sentence could mean that the speaker ceased all running after falling or that the running resumed afterwards. All the sentence states is that the running was interrupted by the fall.

With this positioning of "when," the sentence tends to express the context of the fall. It is more a description of the circumstances than a narration.

When I was running, I fell down.

Moving "when" to the beginning of the first clause in this case does not change the order of the events. The stretch of time still includes the point in time. Because the main clause is a simple past tense, this sentence feels more like a narration than a description.

"When" is less often used to relate two stretches of time to each other, since the temporal relationship can be ambiguous. Usually it indicates that one event enables or causes the other, but may also indicate that they merely overlap.

For instance, "Make hay when the sun shines" is a less usual form of a common proverb. In this form, it tends to indicate that during hay making, you should take advantage of good weather. Using "when" tends to suggest you should look out for the sunshine in order to then start making hay, relating a stretch of time to a point of time; however, it could also simply mean that making hay is a stretch of time that should take place during a stretch of sunshine.

If two events merely overlap, English speakers (at least in the US) tend to replace "when" with "while," which has less temporal ambiguity and no suggestion of causality. You could thus say: "Make hay while the sun shines." This is a more usual form of the proverb and suggests that haymaking is possible only as long as the sun is shining, so don't wait and let rainy weather ruin your haymaking.

Another example is that you would more often say: "they played chess while it rained" to indicated that the chess playing overlapped with the rain. If you said: "they played chess when it rained," you would usually be implying that the rain prompted the chess playing.

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