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Which one do you feel more fluent or natural?

I wondered what the children were doing while/ when I was out.

The reason why such a question has been raised traced back to the following:

Grammar says: usually you use while with an ing form

So, considering these, I think the most proper choice would be the bold one, wouldn't be?

  • Personally, I would use whilst for that sentence. – Joe Dark Dec 13 '14 at 10:07
  • American English speakers would typically not use whilst. – snailcar Dec 13 '14 at 10:43
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    Some regional Br E usage differentiates while/whilst quite differently from the norm. Whilst basically equals 'during'; 'while' can shift meaning towards 'until'. "I thought about this whilst shopping" or "The shops are open while 4 o'clock" That second one is very much non-standard, but common in Northern UK Eng. – Tetsujin Dec 13 '14 at 11:45
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I wondered what the children were doing while/when I was out.

I think most people will prefer using "while" in this sentence, though it's also correct to use "when" in the sentence.

Grammatically speaking, while and when are interchangeable where it means "during the time that something else happens". "When" also refers to "a point in time". you can't use "while" in place of "when" in this case. For example, when he called, I went to him immediately. It's incorrect to say "while he called, I went to him immediately".

It's also not correct to say that we use "while" only in the -ing form of a verb. For example, someone called while you were out (Macmillan), his parents died while he was still in school, we were burgled while we were asleep (OLD), etc.

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"I wondered what the children were doing when I was out" = "at some point, while I was out, I wondered what the children were doing", but "I wondered what the children were doing while I was out" = "At some point I wondered what the children were doing for the duration of my being out".

The grammar side is that the when/while doesn't refer to the verb of the sentence, so it's a description of the time-period. The rule you cite would apply to while I was wondering.. - although even then, it isn't absolute. Perhaps not one the the best rules!

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