When vs Whenever? What is the difference?

Sometimes in English, the rules get twisted and intertwined. This is especially true when dealing with the differences between words like “when” versus “whenever.”

Knowing the difference is somewhat tricky. But once you understand which word is most suitable, it becomes much easier. However, the rules aren’t terribly strict and, if you do make a mistake, it will often go unnoticed.

Understanding When versus Whenever

Basically, the word, “whenever,” refers to an abstract or unspecified period of time. “When” indicates a more direct response to a specific time frame. However, the place in which “when” sits in a sentence will change the rules due to the part of speech it’s serving. Therefore, “when,” can also indicate an unspecific time.


Often thought of as a derivative of “when,” the word “whenever” is an adverb used as a determiner in a measurement of time. Specifics are often unknown.

Whenever she finishes her test, she will leave the classroom.

The criminal could strike whenever.


The word “when” is a noun but it’s also a conjunction, an adverb, or even a pronoun. Regardless, it usually refers to a specific amount of time that you can rely on or predict. Follow the demonstration below:

Since when have you been dying your hair. (pronoun)

We saw you when we entered the mall. (conjunction)

When the criminal struck, it was too late. (adverb)

The confusion comes from the when of a statement. (noun)

Two Rules

There are two basic rules to help you remember if you should use “when” or “whenever.” If you can commit these to memory, knowing the difference will be easier than you think.

Rule # 1: When

Use “when” for a unique event, a specific/reliable time, or if the time is unknown.

When I said I wanted candy, I meant chocolate. (unique event)

The show will begin when the guests arrive. (time is unknown)

The hosts usually announce the when of an event. (specific/reliable time; noun)

Rule #2

For repeating events or if time is uncertain, use “whenever.”

Whenever I clean, you start dirtying things. (repeating event)

I will go to the party whenever I decide. (uncertain time)

Rule Tips

You can use “whenever” to replace phrases such as “whatever time that” or “every time that.”

You can exchange “when” for “whenever” in most cases, but not often vice versa. The only time you can do this is if using “whenever” as a question of “when.”

When will mom stop shouting?

Whenever will mom stop shouting?

But, this is easy to mistake:

Correct: The show starts when the guests arrive.
Correct: The show starts whenever the guests arrive.
Incorrect: Whenever the criminal struck, it was 10 o’clock.
Incorrect: The hosts usually announce the whenever of an event.


Knowing how to use “when” versus “whenever” is a little tricky and it does take some practice to fully comprehend. But if you can remember the two basic rules, it will be simple.