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What is the right way to say this:

The birds were singing as/when/while Jill stopped on the old wooden bridge to look down at the ducks.

It'd be good if you gave a little explanation as well.

1
  • "While" suggests a slightly prolonged action, like "... while Jill stood on the old wooden bridge looking down..." Sep 30 '15 at 18:04
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In this sentence, any of those words can be used and the reader will understand that birds were singing at the moment Jill stopped on the bridge. The best word depends on the context and your personal preference.

In other sentences, the slightly different meanings of these words is more important. The trick is that 'while' refers to a period of time and 'when' usually refers to one moment. 'As' can be either a moment or a period, depending on context.

Consider these sentences:

The car skidded as we came to a stop.

Here, 'as' refers to some time before we stopped.

The car skidded while we came to a stop.

Here, 'while' means the time during which the car was stopping.

The car skidded when we came to a stop.

This sentence implies that once we had stopped, the car started to skid, which does not make sense.

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All three of those hold a different meaning, so it depends on the context.

My interpretation of these would be:

The birds were singing as/when/while Jill stopped on the old wooden bridge to look down at the ducks.

1). as would be used to introduce two events happening at the same time:

The birds were singing as Jill stopped...

2). when is used to describe a single completed event that takes place in the middle of a longer activity or event: (can be intepreted as happening after or at the same time.)

The birds were singing when Jill stopped...

3). while can be used similar to as - referring to activities happening at the same time:

The birds were singing while Jill stopped... (to me the birds were already singing, prompting Jill to stop.)

For more detailed explanation - and what prompted my take on the question: Cambridge Dictionary Online

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