Proper use of “as,” “while,” “when”

From Rick:

I’ve previously talked about the evils of “as” clauses, and I lumped the overuse of present participles (“-ing” words) in with those. In my 3/22/2021 post I briefly touched on present participles as well and some issues with using “as” and “when.” This post will expand on that and look at a few other issues.

Here are the links to two previous articles:

DO YOU WRITE IN AFTERTHOUGHTS?-PART 1

DO YOU WRITE IN AFTERTHOUGHTS?-PART 2

If you read the first one, you need to read Part-2 because it addresses some issues in the first one regarding simultaneous actions.

What I want to address in this post is how to properly use these three little words: as, while, when.

I’ll be talking about them as conjunctions here. When used as a conjunction, “as” can serve in a variety of meanings. The following are partially extracted from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

AS—

1: AS IF: He looks as he had seen a ghost.
2: IN OR TO THE SAME DEGREE IN WHICH: soft as silk
3: IN THE WAY OR MANNER THAT: Do as I do.
4: IN ACCORDANCE WITH WHAT OR THE WAY IN WHICH: He’s quite good as boys go.
5: WHILE; WHEN: She knocked over the chair as she stood up.
6: REGARDLESS OF THE DEGREE TO WHICH; THOUGH: Improbable as it seems, it’s true.
7: FOR THE REASON THAT; BECAUSE; SINCE: She stayed home as she had no car.
8: THAT THE RESULT IS: He was so clearly guilty as to leave no doubt.

Did you realize that “as” could have so many different meanings as a conjunction? When it’s used as such, we often overlook the fact that it doesn’t always carry the same meaning.

Let’s look at definition 5 for “as”: WHILE, WHEN, and let’s look at the word “while” in its use as a conjunction.

WHILE—

1a: DURING THE TIME THAT: Take a nap while I’m out
1b: AS LONG AS: While there’s life, there’s hope.
2a: WHEN ON THE OTHER HAND: Whereas it is easy for an expert to do, while it is dangerous for a novice.
2b: IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT: While he is respected, he is not liked.
3: SIMILARLY AND AT THE SAME TIME THAT: While this book will be welcomed by scholars, it will have an immediate appeal to the general reader.

WHEN—

1a: AT OR DURING THE TIME THAT; WHILE: He went fishing when he was a boy.
1b: JUST AT THE MOMENT THAT: Stop writing when the bell rings.
1c: AT ANY OR EVERY TIME THAT: When he listens to music, he falls asleep.
2: IN THE EVENT THAT: A contestant is disqualified when he disobeys the rules.
3a: CONSIDERING THAT: Why drink water when you can drink something stronger?
3b: IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT; ALTHOUGH: I quit politics when I might have had a great career in it.
4: THE TIME OR OCCASION AT OR IN WHICH: Tomorrow is when we must decide.

So, aside from possible academic interest, which some of you may not have, how can exploring these words in their various meanings help our writing?

Despite “as” being a small word, one that’s not intrusive because it doesn’t stand out, and in spite of its many different meanings, overusing it in the same way can cause problems because then it will sand out. If you use the phrase “as soon as” too much, it stands out and possibly becomes annoying.

>> As soon as Matt saw there was a problem, he called Jake and asked him to come as soon as possible.

>> As she was walking to the bus stop, she spotted one of her co-workers as he was getting coffee from a street vender.

>> Craig tried to act as if he knew what he was doing, as if his boss could tell the difference.

The last example could be considered an exception because the “as if” is used in two different senses here. The effect is that the two complement one another and strengthen the sentence.

While you might be tempted to substitute “like” for one of the “as ifs,” using “like” is grammatically incorrect because it’s a preposition (which needs a noun or noun phrase to follow it) and not a conjunction, which “as if” is. Only if it’s in dialogue should you replace “as if” with “like,” and only if it fits the character’s speech.

>> “Like I told you, we can’t afford it,” he said. (grammatically poor, but acceptable in dialogue because people do talk this way.)

As I pointed out, you can argue that a deliberate double use of “as if” works well here.

What you need to be conscious of are the inadvertent slips where the duplication calls attention to itself in a bad way.

I’ve mentioned previously in my editing I use WordPerfect’s grammar checker for a final pass in a manuscript because it catches things Word doesn’t. One of those is checking the previous ten sentences for beginning them with the same word. I’ll see the message such as “You have used ‘he’ to begin the last 4 of the last 10 or fewer sentences.” I can sometimes safely ignore the message, but it’s always worth checking that I didn’t begin three successive sentences that way. Pronouns are less a problem than using a character’s name or some other word frequently. But even “the” can be a problem if you start 3–4 sentences in a row with it:

>> After two days of hard riding, Hayden’s men were exhausted as the sun was setting, hoping they would reach their destination before it did. The castle came into view minutes later as they rounded a bend in the road. The drawbridge was up. The guards positioned at the parapets had arrows nocked. The first thought on Hayden’s mind as he saw the castle guards ready to fire was why they didn’t recognize him as friend, not foe. The standard-bearer was holding the king’s banner in front of them. As his party approached, he raised his voice to identify himself as the castle defenders began firing.

It would be easy for the writer not to recognize the repetition issues in this paragraph because there’s a lot going on. I’m sure some of the other writing/editing programs you can spend money on would flag them, but I maintain that it’s better if you can spot these on your own. It’s not hard. Simply reading the passage out loud to yourself or letting MS Word’s reader do it will likely let you hear them.

But spotting the problems doesn’t always mean quick fixes. You’re going to have to rewrite that passage, vary the sentences, maybe shift some of them around. I’ll leave that exercise to you.

Let’s go back to those three words I started with: as, while, when. You might be tempted to think that “as” and “while” can both mean the same thing, and you might be tempted to simply replace one use of “as” with “while” or “when.” That only solves the redundant word usage, not the issue of using the same sentence structure.

>> As he was opening the can of beer, the pop-top broke off prematurely. As he was attempting to remedy the situation, he cut his finger. As he was hurrying to the bathroom to get a bandage for it, he tripped on the rug. (What you want to avoid.)

>> As he was opening the can of beer, the pop top broke off prematurely. While he was attempting to remedy the situation, he cut his finger. When he was hurrying to the bathroom to get a bandage for it, he tripped on the rug. (This one isn’t any better because all three sentences have exactly the same sentence structure regardless of the word used to begin them. It makes them monotonous.)

The last thing I want to cover deals with knowing the proper choice of those words. When do you use each word: as, while, when? In some cases, these three words can all mean “during the time that” and are used to connect two events happening at the same time. And the two events being connected can either be both simultaneously ongoing or one event can happen while the other is ongoing.

>> As/while I was still filling out the health insurance form, the nurse called my name. (one is ongoing when another happens)

>> While/as we were putting on our ice skates, other skaters were already heading onto the ice. (both are ongoing)

Although “when” can have the meaning of “during the time that,” it can also mean “after” in some contexts.

>> When you get your new ID card, be sure they spelled your name and location correctly. When I got mine, instead of “Monroe County,” they had it as “Moonroe County.” (after)

>> I always slip off my diet when I’m on vacation. (during the time)

Sometimes we use “just when” to mean “at exactly the same time.”

>> The phone always rings just when I’m leaving.

I hope this helps you become more aware of some possibly overlooked issues in your writing that could weaken it.

—Rick

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