Lesson #233: ‘While’, ‘During’, ‘Meanwhile’, and Other Common Expressions of Simultaneity (Co-occurence)

📗 ‘It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed that the incidents we shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that neither was destined to retain.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826)

As you study English there comes a point when you begin to need the right vocabulary to tell stories with – stories about your experiences, about the news, about the background to something, etc.

The more characters and events are involved in a story or history, the more we need words that describe simultaneity or actions happening at the same time.

Words like ‘meanwhile’ or ‘during’ or ‘while’ … ✏️

That said, our ‘stories’ are not always based in the past (i.e., using a past tense).

👉 We might like to talk about something that is already happening in the present (e.g. several events occurring at the same time) or will happen in the future (e.g. plans, hopes, desires).

In English certain words expressing simultaneity (the relation between two things happening at the same time) are used

1) together with certain tenses,

2) in particular parts of sentences, and

3) with special punctuation.

✍️ So in this Lesson I will show you 7 such words or expressions, while highlighting where and how to use them correctly. That said, remember that these words and expressions essentially all mean the same thing, that is, ‘at the same time’.

I am drawing on a famous American classic – The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper – a historical novel set at the time of the North American Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). 📗

What I love about this book is not just about the grand scheme of things, the big military picture. Fenimore Cooper made it more real to us by creating striking and memorable characters (like the Indians Chingachgook and Uncas, and the two half-sisters Cora and Alice Munro) who live through these dangerous times and whose life-stories we can hardly wait to know more about!

With this masterly (like an expert) overlapping of the ‘small’ and ‘big pictures’, there are so many examples of ‘simultaneity words’ for us to study and appreciate together. So let’s begin!

#1 📝 DURING

You are probably already familiar with this preposition if you have been reading these Lessons for a while!

During means ‘throughout the course or duration of a period of time’. ✏️

Notice its placement in the paragraph below:

📗 ‘It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed that the incidents we shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that neither was destined to retain.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

You will see that ‘during’ is followed here by the noun phrase ‘the third year of the war …’

✍️ This is important because there must always be a noun after the word ‘during’.

❌ If you cannot follow it with a noun, then do not use ‘during’ at all (e.g. this sentence is wrong: ‘during I was studying, I fell asleep’).

Now look at this sentence and find the noun after ‘during’:

📗 ‘A long, breathless silence succeeded, during which each looked at the others in fearful expectation of hearing the sound repeated.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

Did you notice it? It is in fact ‘which’, treated here as a noun that summarises the period of ‘a long, breathless silence’. Nouns might not always be very obvious, but if you understand what each determiner word (such as ‘which’ in this case) stands for, you will understand how then to use ‘during’.

#2 📝 AS

We usually use ‘as’ as an adverb (e.g., ‘she was as tired as could be’) but when it is used as a conjunction it shows that something is ‘taking place at the same time as something else is happening’. ✏️

This word tends to be used more in written English nowadays than in spoken English, so you should learn and use it in your writing if you want it to sound more advanced and not simply like a transcription (the writing down) of your spoken English.

‘As’ often appears at the start of the sentence or clause, as in these two examples from The Last of the Mohicans:

📗 ‘As they traversed that short distance, not a voice was heard amongst them; but a slight exclamation proceeded from the younger of the females, as the Indian runner glided by her, unexpectedly, and led the way along the military road in her front.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘It seemed, in truth, to be a spot devoted to seclusion, and the sisters imbibed a soothing impression of security, as they gazed upon its romantic, though not unappalling beauties.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

VOCABULARY KEY:

  • traversed’ means ‘travelled across’ or simply ‘crossed’
  • glided’ comes from the verb ‘to glide’ meaning ‘to move (or fly) very smoothly and quickly over something, especially in the air’
  • imbibed’ here comes from ‘to imbibe’ meaning ‘to absorb, as if swallowing; to be internally influenced by [something]’

👉 However, as with these quotations and the rest to follow, don’t worry about what all the vocabulary means and focus mainly on 1) where the ‘simultaneity words’ are placed in the sentence and 2) what tense the sentence is in.

#3 📝 WHILE

This word, as you may already know, means ‘at the same time’ or ‘during the same time as …’ ✏️

It is probably the most commonly used word among our ‘simultaneity expressions’ listed here. That said, don’t try to use it in every kind of sentence – that would be a mistake! ❌

‘While’ is only used in special situations. Pay attention to its position in Fenimore Cooper’s sentence below:

📗 ‘While he hesitated how to proceed, Le Subtil cautiously raised himself to his feet, though with a motion so slow and guarded, that not the slightest noise was produced by the change.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘“… We are not safe while he goes at large.”‘

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

✍️ There must always be a clause (subject and verb) after ‘while’.

Because ‘while’ is attached to a clause structure, it is possible to reverse the clauses in a sentence and have it sound or read correctly (✒️ e.g., ‘while I was studying, I fell asleep’, or ‘I fell asleep while [I was] studying’).

✍️ NOTE: You don’t need to repeat the subject if it is the same subject throughout the sentence: ✒️ e.g., ‘He kept sleep-talking while taking a nap’.

So let’s try to reverse the clauses of Fenimore Cooper’s last quotation to illustrate this point:

✒️ While he goes at large, we are not safe.

(TIP: ‘at large’ is used to describe a dangerous or criminal person moving about freely because they have escaped from a prison, etc)

#4 📝 MEANWHILE

‘Meanwhile’ is an adverb commonly defined as ‘in the intervening period of time’. ✏️

✍️ ‘Meanwhile’ emphasises something happening at the same time in contrast with some other situation that has been described before. It is often used to refer to the past.

Here is an example: ✒️ ‘Paula’s mother was at home and tried to phone her daughter; meanwhile, Paula was on a flight so her phone had been turned off.’ Two different places are mentioned here – ‘the flight’ (in the skies) and ‘at home’ – and they show a contrast.

👉 Note: In this next line from The Last of the Mohicans, we see how back in Fenimore Cooper’s time ‘meanwhile’ could be treated as a noun as well as an adverb. For this reason he writes ‘in the meanwhile’, but nowadays we would simply say ‘meanwhile’ instead.

📗 ‘In the meanwhile, the gravity of Chingachgook remained immovable.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

#5 📝 MEANTIME

‘Meantime’ is a noun and refers to ‘the time between one event or process and another event or process’. ✏️

✍️ It is often found in fixed expressions such as ‘in the meantime’ or ‘for the meantime’, and it generally refers to events in the future.

✍️ It also tends to appear at the start of a sentence or clause (unlike ‘meanwhile’, which is more flexible in its placement within a sentence).

Here is an sample sentence using ‘meantime’: ✒️ ‘I don’t have enough money to buy the textbooks now, but I hope I can afford them next September. In the meantime, I am going to borrow them from the library.’

#6 📝 AT THE SAME TIME

This expression is self-explanatory – it doesn’t need a formal definition to understand it!

✍️ It is also one of the most flexible of all the ‘simultaneity expressions’ we have been looking at here – it can be used in the past tense, the present tense, the future, almost anywhere and in any part of the sentence. That said, it sounds less formal and so should not be used too often in written English.

Here is how Fenimore Cooper used it:

📗 ‘”They ask for the hunter who knows the paths through the woods,” returned Magua, in his broken English, laying his hand, at the same time, with a ferocious smile, on the bundle of leaves with which a wound on his own shoulder was bandaged.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

#7 📝 SIMULTANEOUSLY

This word is usually used in written contexts, perhaps because it is ‘a bit of a mouthful’ (a long word) to try to pronounce when speaking!

It simply means ‘at the same time’. ✏️

It is placed in the middle or at the end of a sentence: ✒️ e.g., ‘the book and movie were publicised simultaneously on social media’.

Here is Fenimore Cooper’s application (practical use) of it:

📗 ‘And, occasionally, the eyes of a whole group were turned simultaneously towards a large and silent lodge in the centre of the village, as if it contained the subject of their common thoughts.’

– James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (emphasis mine)

💡 This word is very suitable here because it helps readers to visualise how the ‘eyes of a whole group were turned’ at the same time ‘towards a large and silent lodge …’ – a word which adds greatly to building up drama and excitement in the story!

Have these words and the accompanying sample sentences been helpful? I hope so.

✏️ As you continue to read in English and listen to how native speakers speak, pay attention to where the simultaneity words are placed in sentences and which tense or time their story is referring to. With practice and a little patience, I am confident that you can master these expressions in a very short time!