What's the difference between [V-ながら][V2] and [V-ている]間[V2] ?

For example, is there any difference in nuance between these 2 sentences:

  1. トムはテレビを見てる間勉強していた

  2. トムはテレビを見ながら勉強していた

3 Answers 3



means that Mr Tanaka primarily does A. Incidentally, he also does B.

田中さんは、友達と飲みながら通常会話を学びます。 Mr Tanaka learns casual conversation skills while drinking with his friends.

The main action is drinking, it's the whole context. Incidentally, it's also the unrelated opportunity to practice conversation.

Some grammar books would tell you that "ながら" is similar to "のに", to show that it's linking two different actions, and does not concern time (even though they are simultaneous):


is almost "even though I'm watching the telly, I'm concentrating on my homework." It's a kind of opposition showing that the two actions are not logically connected.

  • 6
    Are you sure about this? I was taught the opposite. For example, this sentence (from zokugo-dict.com) "ながら族とは、ラジオや音楽をかけながら勉強や仕事をする習慣の人。", seems, to me at least, to illustrate that B is the main activity. Also, could you give an example of what you mean by the similarity to のに? I'm not exactly clear on what you mean.
    – rdb
    Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 7:35
  • @rdb now I was wondering if you are right
    – Pacerier
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 21:33
  • 1
    @Pacerier - I asked a native speaker who has taught Japanese in the US and Thailand, and his opinion was that B is indeed the main activity. I wonder if we could hear from more native speakers here on this question.
    – rdb
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 22:01
  • @rdb: I think it really sums up to what one calls "main activity". I think that A is a context action, and B what happens in that context. Even then, I think that either A or B can be the "main activity", depending on what is actually said.
    – Axioplase
    Commented Sep 9, 2011 at 2:33
  • @Axioplase - Context, the perpetual bête noire of the Japanese student, rears its ugly head once more! (笑) What I actually asked was 「主な行動はどっちのほうだと思うか」, so depending on how well 主な行動 maps to "main activity" . . . At any rate, I still wish a native speaker would chime in here and help us out. Perhaps we should ask it as an independent question for a fuller discussion.
    – rdb
    Commented Sep 9, 2011 at 3:44

This is the impression I get from the sentences:

  1. Tom was studying for (at least) the entire time he was watching TV. He may have studied later too, it's unclear; but we can at least say that while he was watching TV, he was definitely studying. The sentence is interested in telling us what Tom was doing during the time he was watching TV.

  2. Tom was studying while watching TV. He may also at some point have just watched the TV without studying, but this isn't important. The sentence is interested in describing (the nature of) Tom's action of studying and is not interested in when he was watching TV.

I've answered your examples rather than your actual question, I'm afraid. ^^; Perhaps someone else will be able to tackle it better?


Your example sentences sound pretty much the same. My preference is for the ~ながら version, since both actions share a subject and are volitional.

The main difference, I think, between these two forms shows up when we add a second subject to the mix:

○ トムは弟がテレビを見てる間勉強していた。 Tom was studying while his brother watched TV.

× トムは弟がテレビを見ながら勉強していた。 (incorrect)

The two actions in a ~ながら construction must have the same subject, so you can't use ~ながら to construct a sentence of the form, "Person #1 did A while Person #2 did B." ~ている間, on the other hand, merely means "While [action] is happening…" or "While [condition] is true…", so you can have different subjects:

雨が降っている間、このカフェでコーヒーでも飲みましょう。 While it's raining, let's grab something to drink at this coffee shop.

ねこがいない間はネズミは遊ぶ。 While the cat's away the mice will play.

I'm going to avoid the discussion of which is the primary action and which is the secondary; those kinds of rules tend to break down in everyday usage and don't contribute much to learning.

  • I thought about the "primary/secondary" action. I think that there is one, which as I said in my reply sets up a context, but I don't think that it means it is the "important" one. There might be a terminology issue (which I cannot solve for I lack knowledge) if you were referring to my post.
    – Axioplase
    Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 13:50
  • 1
    @Axioplase: I'm not denying the fact that there is a primary/secondary distinction. I'm just of the opinion that it's not a terribly useful one. :) Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 13:54
  • 1
    @Derek Schaab - I'm not convinced that the distinction is so trivial, since it demonstrates which activity the speaker considers to be the more important. For example, could not telling your boss "I drank while negotiating this deal.", rather than "I negotiated this deal over drinks.", land you in a kettle of fish?
    – rdb
    Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 17:47

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