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Posted on 01.11.2011

When Words Drive Me Crazy

I love words. More precisely, I love the proper use of the English language. I picked it up from my mother who, even at the age of 80, has a voracious appetite for books and was always the “grammar cop” in our family.

My most recent obsession centers on my concern for the use of the words, “whenever” vs. “when.” I’m mystified by the fact that even seemingly well-educated people will regularly misuse both. And it nags at me. “Whenever” vs. “When” The words “whenever” and “when” are not necessarily interchangeable, and yet I find it challenging to articulate the difference between the two. Sometimes it’s perfectly correct to use either word in a sentence, as in, “I’ll come pick you up when/whenever you are ready.” Just as often, however, it isn’t appropriate for one to be substituted for the other. For instance it is correct to say, “Whenever the refrigerator kicks on, the lights dim,” but incorrect to say, “Whenever I get down from this ladder, I’ll fix lunch.” I’ve noticed that, more and more frequently, people don’t seem to differentiate between the two. Here’s the difference as best I can tell: “Whenever” is for potentially repetitive events and/or a non-specific or unknown reference to time.  “When,” on the other hand, refers to a specific time or event. RIGHT:          Whenever I get on a Ferris wheel, I throw up. WRONG:       Whenever I finish my lunch, I’m going to the store. RIGHT:          When you get back home, we will watch a movie. Do I have this right? When you have time (whenever that might be), please let me know.

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