when/as + progressive tense

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Francesthemute

Member
Argentina Spanish
As, when and while are all used to connect two events happening at the same time, alright. My problem sentence is this (I made it up):

When he was running away, one man said "I'll kill you."

Does when here feel right? Not to me at all, I'd say this instead:

As/while he was running away, one man said "I'll kill you."

But I can't explain to myself why. After racking my brain, one possible answer I came up with is that as/while seem more suitable to emphasize a single progressive action than when. But this is just my impression. Any thoughts?
 
  • dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    The following is not a rule. It is just how the 3 words are "most often" used in this contex, in my opinion:

    (1) When X was happening means at the time that X was happening: a moment.

    (2) As/while X was happening means during the time that X was happening: a period.

    Someone speaking takes a (small) period of time, rather than occurring at an exact moment. That is why (2) sounds more natural to me.
     
    Last edited:

    Francesthemute

    Member
    Argentina Spanish
    Thank you dojibear! But I'm still confused because, if I understood it correctly, when is also used to talk about a period of time. Consider these examples I got from Cambridge's English Grammar Today:

    When the men were out working in the field, I helped with milking the cows, feeding the calves and the pigs.
    Steven was very unhappy when things weren’t going well for him.

    Here, the clauses introduced by when sound like whole periods of time to me, not just momentary things.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    You are correct. In my post #2, I stated a rule for "when vs. as/while" which describes the most common usage in my opinion. But I did not make that clear. Instead it looks like a rule for what uses are "acceptable" or "always used". I will edit my post #2.

    You said in post #1 that you don't know why "when" did not feel right to you in this sentence (but "as" and "while" did). They feel the same to me, and I do know why: because of the difference in meaning (period, moment) I describe in post 2. Even though it is not "always" (only "usually" or "mostly" or "often") it is still a difference in my concept of the meaning of the three words, which changes what "feels right" to me. I thought it might be the same for you, so I proposed it as a possible answer to your question.
     
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