Overloading While

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Because English is blessed with so many subordinating conjunctions, there’s no need to overuse any of them. The conjunction while, for example, tends to pop up in contexts in which a different conjunction may be the better choice.

The first and most obvious use of while is as a temporal conjunction to introduce a clause that has something to do with time:

While I was sleeping, the cat ate the canary. (Here while means “during the time that.”)

While is used to introduce clauses that express opposition:

While she was quite attractive, she believed that she was ugly. (Here while means “despite the fact that.”)

While is also used to introduce a clause that provides a contrast:

Mary dressed in princess clothing, while her brother dressed in cowboy costume.

It is this use of while that leads to ambiguity.

Does the while clause express contrast, or does it express time? The sentence could be interpreted to mean that Mary dressed as a princess during the time that her brother dressed as a cowboy. If contrast is intended, the conjunction whereas would make the meaning clearer.

Sometimes while is used as if it were a coordinating conjunction like and, as in this description of a motorcycle:

New, soft palm grips provide nice comfort, while broad mirrors are neatly placed for clear rear vision.

Here are some “adversative” conjunctions that you may wish to substitute for while when appropriate:

even though

Here are some additional temporal conjunctions to use when while is not quite what you want:

as soon as
as long as
by the time

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4 thoughts on “Overloading While”

  1. Thank you. Those are useful points to keep in mind.

    I think the ambiguity between contrast and simultaneity in

    “Mary dressed in princess clothing, while her brother dressed in cowboy costume”

    is addressed by the presence or absence of a comma. In the above example, the comma indicates that the writer uses ‘while’ as a conjunction. It conveys more contrast than ‘and’ and less conflict than ‘but.’ Without the comma, ‘while’ reverts to its adverbial meaning of simultaneity:

    Mary dressed in princess clothing while her brother dressed in cowboy costume.

    This second example introduces a new ambiguity. Does the sentence focus on wearing different costumes or on dressing at the same time?

    It is better that the reader not have to deal with ambiguity or, worse, with writers who don’t deploy commas properly. As the article advises, use less ambiguous terms.

  2. Interesting. Yet another thing that I had never thought about before.
    I had always read the “opposite” or “contrast” uses of while as simply an extension of the time usage: “At the same time that this thing is true, this other (opposite or contrasting) thing is also true.

    I guess I’d never run into a situation where the ambiguity could have changed the meaning…or I did and didn’t realize it.

    The two uses of “while” remind me of the way that “but” is logically the same meaning as “and,” just with the added connotation of defensiveness, apology or excuse-making about the first part.
    If you see where I’m coming from.


  3. @Rich

    Yes, the comma, or its absence” can help when the “while” clause is after a preliminary statement, as in
    “The lights went out, while the fire alarms remained on”

    This seems to indicate a contrast: Even though the lights were off, the fire alarm was still working.

    However, the comma doesn’t help when you reverse the order of the clauses and put the “while” clause first:
    “While the fire alarms remained on, the lights went out.”

    Here, you need the comma anyways to follow the introductory description, so the sentence doesn’t indicate whether “the lights went out”
    1. is in contrast to the fire alarms remaining on,
    2. is simultaneous to the fire alarms remaining on,
    3. is both in contrast and simultaneous to the lights remaining on, or
    4. is caused by the fire alarms remaining on.

    If the writer want to indicate contrast or opposition and reduce ambiguity, the writer can use “although,” as follows.
    “Although the fire alarms remained on, the lights went out.”

    The problem is that “while” is a tricky word to use. When I mean to establish contrast or opposition, I always use a different word, typically “although” or “whereas.” By using “while” only for simultaneous actions, I hope to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.

  4. Thank you for not listing “whilst” as an alternative. It it is horrible, horrible word! 😉

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