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  1. When I was talking with john, the telephone rang.

  2. I was talking with john, when the telephone rang.

What is the difference between the above sentences? (Do they sound similar?)

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When I was talking with John, the telephone rang.

I was talking with John, when the telephone rang.

There is a lot of difference between these sentences which is as follows:

When has been used as a conjunction and conjunction clause is a subordinate clause, which is different in both sentences.

The "when" in the first sentence means "during the time that", and the sentence means that the telephone rang during the time I was talking with John".

The "when" in the second sentence shows "a point in time", which means that at the time the telephone rang, I was talking with John.

We should omit the comma before "when" in the second sentence because if the subordinate clause with "when" comes after the main clause, we don't use a comma before "when".

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Sentence #2 is more correct. You are asking about the past continuous tense.

You have 2 past events. A) I was talking with John. B) The phone rang. Event B (quick and short action) interrupts Event A (longer action). If we want to make one sentence out of these two events, we can write it four different ways.

We can put 'when' in front of the quick action, like in your sentence above.

I was talking with John when the telephone rang. no comma When the phone rang, I was talking with John. comma

Or we can put 'while' in front of the long action:

The telephone range while I was talking with John. no comma While I was talking with John, the telephone rang. comma

All four sentences mean pretty much the same thing. There might be some minor differences, but without context, we can ignore it.

A note about commas: If 'when' and 'while' are in the middle of the sentence, we don't need a comma. We only need a comma when (ha!) they are at the beginning of a past continuous sentence--possibly other places too, but we're focusing on these types of sentences here.

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  • I disagree that either sentence is more correct than the other and I disagree that they have the same meaning (or, at least, the same emphasis). Dec 15 '14 at 13:23
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The sentences both express the idea that the two events "I was talking with John" and "the phone rang" happened at the same time. (Presumably, the phone wasn't ringing the whole time you were talking with John: that would be a very persistent caller!)

The difference is one of emphasis. "When I was talking with John, the telephone rang" puts the emphasis on the conversation with John, with the phone as an interruption; "I was talking with John when the telephone rang" (without the comma) puts the emphasis on the phone ringing, with your conversation with John as, for example, a reason why you didn't answer it.

By the way, since "John" is a proper noun, it would normally be capitalized. (Where "normally" means "always, unless John has decided, for some reason, that he wants his name to be written with lower-case letters and, even then, a lot of people will ignore him.")

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