Today I’m going to address something that is a very common problem among less experienced writers: the problems that can arise when ‘when’ is used as a conjunction.
A conjunction is a word that is used to connect two elements within a sentence. The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the word can also mean sexual intercourse, and this is strangely apposite considering the unhappy results when conjunctions are used inappropriately.
How Conjunctions work
In the most basic form of conjunction use, you have two short sentences and you wish to combine them into a single sentence.
The cat sat on the mat.
The cat started to wash his paws.
In this most basic example, the obvious choice of conjunction is ‘and’ -
The cat sat on the mat AND started to wash his paws.
Note how the subject has been omitted from the second part, because it already appears in the first part.
There are a great many conjunctions available in English, and they serve various purposes, but today we are going to talk about the use of ‘WHEN’. ‘When’ is a particular type of conjunction known as a Subordinating Conjunction. This means that when you tie two elements together with it, one of them is subordinate to the other.
Here is an example of a subordinating conjunction in action:
While Tom was in the kitchen, Boris stole the lavatory paper.
In this sentence, the main clause is ‘Boris stole the lavatory paper.’ This sentence could stand alone. The subordinate clause serves to modify the main clause. It gives us more information about Boris stealing the lavatory paper (he did it while Tom was in the kitchen). Note how the conjunction (while) doesn’t need to go between the two parts of the sentence. 'While' is a subordinating conjunction, and it serves to introduce the subordinate clause as well as to link the two clauses, so it goes with the subordinate clause (Tom was in the kitchen). You could also write this sentence as ‘Boris stole the lavatory paper while Tom was in the kitchen.’
Particular Requirements of WHEN
Because ‘when’ is a word concerned with time, it has special features in a sentence. Used to join two clauses, it tells us that time is in some way relevant to the relationship between the two elements. In the example above, the information added by the subordinate clause is time information - it answers the question ‘when did Boris steal the lavatory paper?’
Because of the fact that elements connected by ‘when’ are related by time, this conjunction often serves to introduce a causal relationship as well. Although causality is not a necessary feature of sequence, when a story is being told it is often an incidental feature of it. Take, for example, the form ‘A when B’. On its face, this form does not express any causal link. When it is particularised, however, such a link will often, although not always, form.
Consider the following sentence:
“I hit the bear over the head when he tried to take my sandwich.”
In this sentence, as well as placing the act of hitting the bear in a time context (it happened after he attempted to take the sandwich), there is a causal link established, as the action of hitting the bear is clearly a result of his attempted predation. Were this not the case, we’d write the sentence some other way, giving more emphasis to the time element. We might say something like “The bear had already eaten all the fruit and was reaching for my sandwich when I hit him.” In that sentence, it is not at all clear why the person hit the bear; he might have been stalking him anyway.
A similar, but different form is when the sentence describes not two actions related in time, but an action and a state of affairs - an action that is not completed, but is still going on.
“I was eating my lunch when the bear jumped out of the bush.”
Here we have the main clause describing an action (‘the bear jumped out of the bush’) and the subordinate clause describes a state of affairs that obtained at the time the action took place (‘I was eating my lunch.’) The eating of lunch was still ongoing and had not been completed.
Now there is nothing wrong with either of these forms, but where people get into trouble is when the wrong one is chosen. A lack of proper understanding of the structure of verbs can lead the novice writer to say, instead of the above, the following:
“I eat my lunch when the bear jumps out of the bush.”
The image conjured is risible. “Hop to and eat your lunch, Johnny, before the bear gets it,” one can imagine his mother saying. Do you see? This sentence is telling us that he eats his lunch after, and because of, the bear jumping out of the bush, which is a nonsense.
Which Form To Use
Which of these two forms you use will depend largely on whether you wish to show a causal relationship between the two events, or merely one of time.
Take, for example, the following two events:
1) A cat walks into the room.
2) Rodney screams.
On the face of it, we do not know in what order these events take place; nor do we know whether one event is caused by the other.
To join these two clauses into a sentence using ‘when’, there are four possible combinations using the forms shown above.
1. Rodney screamed when the cat walked into the room.
Here, Rodney’s scream is a response to the cat’s entry. Perhaps Rodney is an ailurophobe, or the cat is a panther.
2. The cat walked into the room when Rodney screamed.
Here, the cat’s entry is a response to Rodney’s scream. Perhaps it is Rodney’s cat and its entry is motivated by concern.
3. The cat was walking into the room when Rodney screamed.
Here, the cat is in the act of entering the room when Rodney screams, but his scream is not caused by the cat. Perhaps he has had bad news on the telephone, or he is suffering from the D.T.s.
4. Rodney was screaming when the cat walked into the room.
Rodney is already screaming at the time of the cat’s entry, but the cat’s entry is probably not a response to this. Not certainly, because who can say with cats? But the sentence does not tell us that it is.