Lesson #271: Understanding ‘While’ vs ‘When’ through Anne Bronte’s ‘Agnes Grey’

Last Friday we looked at Anne Bronte’s first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), as a story on morality and education, women’s careers in the Victorian age, and personal character development. (Please read 👉 that Lesson first to get a good picture of what the novel is really about – you wouldn’t like to miss it!)

Today we will continue to read from this novel, though for a different purpose: we are going to focus on a grammatical issue every student faces at some point in their language studies.

📝 ‘WHILE’ vs ‘WHEN’

Students often wonder, when should they use ‘when’ or ‘while’ in a sentence?

✍️ After all, both words describe actions happening at the same time.

I am going to divide this Lesson into three main parts:

✔️ 1) firstly, looking at the word ‘while’, and how to use it correctly,

✔️ 2) then considering the word ‘when’, with all its different uses, and

✔️ 3) lastly looking at situations when you might wonder which word is best to use.

I hope you find this helpful!


✍️ ‘While’ describes two continuous actions or processes.

📙 ‘Sometimes I would … casually ask her the word while she was thinking of something else …’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

💡 TIP: Because of this, it is often found in sentences that are using some kind of progressive (present, past, or future) continuous tense, e.g. ‘was thinking’.

Here are a couple of ways you can use ‘while’:

✍️ 1) Whenever two longer actions take place at the same time, you should use ‘while’. It carries a sense of ‘it was happening simultaneously’.

📙 ‘What happy hours Mary and I have passed while sitting at our work by the fire, or wandering on the heath-clad hills, or idling under the weeping birch (the only considerable tree in the garden), talking of future happiness to ourselves and our parents, of what we would do, and see, and possess …’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphasis)

✍️ 2) You can also use ‘while’ to describe a single longer action, for example: ‘It is important to do your homework daily while you are studying English.’ Studying English is not a short action (😊) and so ‘while’ applies here.

(You could also use ‘when’ in such situations and it would be grammatically correct, but generally speaking, we much prefer ‘while’ over ‘when’ to describe two longer, simultaneous (happening at the same time) actions).

📙 ‘I saw a great deal of him while we were in London …’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

This gives the impression that the speaker, Miss Murray, was in London for a long period of time.

Here is a line from Agnes Grey which further illustrates our point:

📙 ‘“I settled everything with Mrs. Grey, while you were putting on your bonnet,” replied he.’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)


✍️ ‘When’ is used to describe two single, decisive actions.

TIP: We often use the past simple with ‘when’. 💡

Here are four ways we use ‘when’:

✔️ 1) ‘When’ describes short, specific periods of time that interrupt or follow another (usually longer) action. ✒️ E.g. ‘Please check you have all your belonging when you leave the train.’

Here is a sample sentence in Anne Bronte’s words:

📙 “… he will be disappointed when he finds himself mistaken.”

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

It often means ‘at that moment’. ✍️ Therefore, whenever you have a shorter action interrupting either a shorter or longer action you should always use ‘when’.

✔️ 2) We also use ‘when’ whenever one action follows another:

✒️ ‘I was walking my dog when I realised that I had forgotten my purse at home’.

This sentence shows that the realisation of forgetting my purse (a short action) started after I had already been walking (a longer action).

Consider this from Agnes Grey, describing a surprising moment in Agnes Grey’s life when she is suddenly helped by a passing gentleman after finding herself in a distressing state:

📙 ‘I could not reach them unless I climbed the bank, which I was deterred from doing by hearing a footstep at that moment behind me, and was, therefore, about to turn away, when I was startled by the words, ‘Allow me to gather them for you, Miss Grey,’ spoken in the grave, low tones of a well-known voice.’

Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphasis mine)

✔️ 3) This might be surprising, but we also use ‘when’ whenever we are referring to an age or period of life (even if it is a long period) in the past:

✒️ ‘When I was a child, I used to take dancing lessons.’ Or ‘I used to take dancing lessons when I was a child.’ (Either is correct). ✒️ ‘I got married when I was 24.’

Or in the livelier words of little Tom Bloomfield, the spoiled pupil that Agnes Grey has to teach:

📙 “Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it: he says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy.”

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

✍️ We always use ‘when’ to describe an age or period in life because ‘was’ or ‘were’ are from the verb ‘to be’, which is a stative verb in English.

A stative verb means that no action is taking place because someone / something is simply existing: it is a fact. Even though your childhood, etc. wasn’t a short period in itself, stative verbs are treated as decisive facts that we recognise and that therefore require ‘when’ (which is itself generally used to describe shorter, more matter-of-fact moments / actions).

💡 NOTE: We never use ‘while’ to talk about a state we or someone was in in the past.

Similarly, verbs that describe the senses (hear, see, taste, touch, feel, smell) are also stative verbs that take ‘when’: ✒️ e.g., ‘When I saw that there was a sale on, I went shopping.’

Here we find Miss Murray, Agnes’ coquettish and pretty pupil, causing her patient governess some stress in this next sentence:

📙 ‘And when I [Agnes speaking] saw this, and when I beheld her [Miss Murray] plunge more recklessly than ever into the depths of heartless coquetry, I had no more pity for her.’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

Note: ‘beheld’ means ‘to see’

✔️ 4) We use ‘when’ whenever we are asking a question relating to a specific time. We never really use ‘while’ in question formats.

📙 “And when will you come to see mamma?”

“Tomorrow — God willing.”

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphasis mine)


✒️ We were reading the book together when we were interrupted.

✍️ Notice how this example includes both a short (‘we were interrupted’) and long (‘we were reading the book together’) action, but because the longer action came first, we need to use ‘when’.

✍️ However, if we reverse the order and talk about the shorter action first, then we should use ‘while’.

‘When’ has a sense of a background being interrupted.

On the other hand, ‘while’ has a sense of continuous actions interweaving with each other.

Here is our sample sentence reversed, with the shorter action in front necessitating the use of ‘while’:

✒️ ‘We were interrupted while we were reading the book together.’

And in the words of Anne Bronte:

📙 ‘While I was walking along, happy within, and pleased with all around, Miss Murray came …’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

Which is the longer action here? ‘While I was walking …’

What is the shorter action? ‘Miss Murray came …’

✍️ You can tell which is short and long based on the tenses: short actions tend to take the past historic and longer ones tend to use a progressive continuous tense, as mentioned above.

Notice in this next quotation how Anne Bronte, the novelist, interweaves ‘when’ to describe a short action and ‘while’ to describe a longer action. Agnes’ cat is sitting on her lap before she leaves home to become a governess:

📙 ‘I had romped with her for the last time; and when I stroked her soft bright fur, while she lay purring herself to sleep in my lap, it was with a feeling of sadness I could not easily disguise.’

– Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (emphases mine)

I trust this Lesson was helpful for you!

As mentioned in my recent Lesson #269, Agnes Grey is a gentle, sometimes sad yet sweet novel suitable for intermediate and advanced level students.

👉 You can find some resources to help you read the book listed in that Lesson, if you would like to read it for yourself … Happy reading! 📚

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)