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'When' with Past Tense

'When' with Past Tense
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Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question about using “when” with past simple or past continuous tenses.



I'm a learner from China. Could you please help me with the following question?

Is the sentence The good news came when we weren't expecting it grammatically correct?

If it is correct, how can we understand the following rule:

“As a general rule, you should use “while” in a clause with a continuous action, using a verb in a continuous tense. Use “when” in a clause with a single action, using a simple past or present tense.”

Many thanks,



Thank you for writing, Jinye. Keep up the good work learning English with us!

The sentence “The good news came when we weren't expecting it” is grammatically acceptable.

When and while

As for “when” and “while” we answered a question about How to Use ‘When’ and ‘While’ in an earlier Ask a Teacher program.

We explained that some experts call both words “subordinating conjunctions” in some cases. This means they signal how pieces of information are related to one another. And we shared that general rule to give an idea of how they are used in English.

Let’s look at these two examples:

When the phone rang, I was making dinner.

While I was making dinner, the phone rang.

“While” and “when” both relate to time although “while” usually signals that two events are happening at the same time.

Using English in real life

Another issue to consider is how people use language in real life. Sometimes, the real-life use of language does not seem to equal textbook rules.

For example, many native users of English use “when” with continuous action. In fact, “when” is used with past progressive more often than “while” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Here are some example sentences from the corpus.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy.

I was thinking about her when we were talking.

When he was running for President, Obama gave electrifying speeches.

Please let us know if this explanation has helped you, Jinye.

Do you have a question about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Gena Bennett.

Gena Bennett wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.