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I know that when we focus on duration,

While/when I was cooking she came in.

we are allowed to use both "while" and "when".

When we focus on effects we are only allowed to use "when":

I was playing when I heard something.

Here "while" would be incorrect.

What about if clause? Could I say "while I play I always win" While instead if?

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  • "When I play I always win" may be better suited to a separate question, since the use of "when" is different from the other given examples; it's referring to a repeated pattern of events rather than the time of a singular event.
    – YonKuma
    Feb 29 at 20:27
  • @YonKuma The OP is asking about the sentence, "While I play I always win". There's no other question here to separate it from, so I don't see how a separate question would work.
    – gotube
    Feb 29 at 20:56

2 Answers 2

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The short answer is it's grammatically correct to say, "While I play I always win", but it doesn't have the meaning you intend.

"While" means "during the time", and "when" means "at the time" or "each time". So "while" can only refer to spans of time, and "when" can refer both to spans of time and instant events.

In your first examples, the continuous verbs, "cooking" and "playing", represent spans of time, so both "while" and "when" apply. In contrast, "came in" and "heard something" are both instant events which interrupt those continuous verbs, so only "when" applies.

So to your question, "play" can be referred to as a span of time, so it's grammatically correct to say "While I play I always win", but it doesn't have the meaning you intend. Since "while" only refers to a span of time, rather than a single event of playing, the implied contrast is with not playing at all, so it means, roughly:

During the time I play, I always win (and when I'm not playing, I don't always win).

The intended meaning is, "Each time I play, I win". This meaning can be expressed with "when", but not with "while" because here, "play" is a repeated event, rather than a span of time.

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  • ago I was told that we don't use while with stative verbs thus "when I was 20 not while I was 20" but I found one example on the internet " We hope she behaved well while we were out". So can I use while with ststive verbs or no? –
    – Bob
    Feb 29 at 21:14
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    @Bob You can freely use "while" with stative verbs. Stative verbs mostly represent spans of time, so "while" works quite well with them. Not sure where you heard that or if you remember it correctly, but it's not a rule. There are some stative verbs like "know" which don't work with "while", but that's because spans of time, by definition are all temporary, but "know" is considered something permanent, so not a span of time, but something that continues indefinitely.
    – gotube
    Feb 29 at 21:38
  • It's fine to say while I was 20?
    – Bob
    Feb 29 at 22:17
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    @Bob Again the grammar is correct, but it doesn't mean the same thing as "when I was 20". With "while", it means "for the entire duration of the time I was 20", rather than "at some point during the time I was 20", which is what "when I was 20" means.
    – gotube
    Feb 29 at 22:37
  • Yes, I was going to post something very similar. Note in @gotube's example, you could say, "When I was 20, I met Sally." Meaning, at some specific point in time that occurred during the period when I was 20 years old, I met Sally. You wouldn't say, "While I was 20, I met Sally", because that would imply that meeting Sally was a process that took the whole year or a significant part of it. You could say, "While I was 20 I was dating Sally." Because then you're talking about something that happens over a period of time.
    – Jay
    Mar 1 at 7:36
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"When" can be a bit more flexible than "while." Note that these examples include a "long thing"—an ongoing activity—and a "short thing," an event. For example, "I was playing" is the "long thing" and "I heard something" is the "short thing." "While" is simple: it can only be attached to the "long thing." You can rearrange the sentence, but keep "while" attached to the "long thing."

While I was playing, I heard something.
OR I heard something while I was playing.
BUT NOT While I heard something, I was playing.

"When" is more flexible. It can be attached to the "short thing":

When I heard something, I was playing. (I.e. at the moment that I head something, my situation was that I was playing.)

... or to the "long thing":

When I was playing, I heard something. (I.e., during the period of time in which I was playing, an event happened.)


Note, we've been talking about the combination of "long thing plus short thing." You can also use either "when" or "while" to talk about two simultaneous (or near-simultaneous) short things, with a slight change in meaning.

While you pressed the red button I pressed the blue button. (Both presses are happening truly at the same time.)
When you pressed the red button I pressed the blue button. (This could be simultaneous, or it could be that I pressed just after you did.)

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  • FYI, the OP replaced the vague terms "long time" and "short time" in the question with the clear terms "duration" and "event" while you were answering.
    – gotube
    Feb 29 at 20:52
  • I was told that we don't use while with stative verbs thus "when I was 20 not while I was 20" but I found one example on the internet " We hope she behaved well while we were out". So can I use while with ststive verbs or no?
    – Bob
    Feb 29 at 21:14
  • @gotube Actually that's me being intentionally vague (or at least simple so as to be broad) Feb 29 at 21:18
  • @Bob "Stative verbs" is a confusing concept (and one I hadn't heard of before and had to Google). What I found is that some (many?) verbs can either be stative or not depending on usage. I'd go so far as to say that it's a bit misleading to call a particular word a "stative verb"; rather, one might encounter it in a stative usage. "I am human" is unchanging; it's an attribute. "I am sleeping" is an activity. Both use the same verb; the latter can take "while" (e.g. the movie While You Were Sleeping). My perception is you can use "while" in the latter cases, when you're describing a Feb 29 at 21:23
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    And @Bob note, this is all totally different from the usage of "while" that means "On the one hand," like "While I am human, you are a werewolf." Mar 1 at 4:18

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