Q: It seems to be getting more and more common lately, particularly among younger English speakers, to use “whenever” in place of “when,” as in this example: “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside.” Is this a developing usage? Is it valid?
A: You could use “when” or “whenever” in that sentence, but the meaning would change. “When I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” indicates that you got up once and it was dark. “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” suggests you got up more than once and it was dark each time.
In standard English, “when” here is a conjunction meaning “at the time that” something happens or “as soon as” something happens, while “whenever” is a conjunction meaning “every time that” something happens.
We should note that “whenever” is also used as an adverb meaning “at whatever time” (as in “At about 6, or whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside”).
But in various English dialects, “whenever” is often used as a conjunction in the sense of plain old “when.” As the Dictionary of American Regional English explains, in parts of the US (the South, South Midland, and western Pennsylvania) as well as in Scotland and Ireland, “whenever” is used dialectally “in contexts where when would be expected.”
Used in reference to “a single punctual event,” the dictionary says, this dialectal “whenever” means “at the same time that” or “as soon as” the event occurred.
DARE’s earliest American example for the regional “whenever” cites the “as soon as” usage: “The Pennsylvanians use the word whenever to signify ‘as soon as.’ Thus it will be said that, ‘whenever the carriage came, the lady got in’ ” (“The Dialects of Our Country,” by the Rev. N. C. Burt, Appletons’ Journal, November 1878).
The dictionary’s next example is from Virginia: “Whenever … As soon as; ‘He will go whenever he gets ready’ ” (Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, 1912, by Bennett Wood Green).
And here’s a citation from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee: “Whenever … When. ‘What did they do with you whenever you killed that man some two or three years ago?’ ” (a 1939 field report in the Joseph Sargent Hall Collection in the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University).
The linguists Michael B. Montgomery and John M. Kirk use the term “punctual whenever” in referring to “the subordinating conjunction whenever, especially when used for a onetime, momentary event.”
In a paper, “ ‘My Mother, Whenever She Passed Away, She Had Pneumonia’: The History and Functions of Whenever,” the linguists cite “eighteenth-century Ulster migrants mainly of Scottish heritage as the most likely trans-Atlantic source” of the usage in America (Journal of English Linguistics, September 2001).
Montgomery (University of South Carolina) and Kirk (Queen’s University, Belfast) add that “the available evidence indicates remarkably little difference in how whenever is used today in Ulster English and Appalachian English, two historically related varieties.”
The sentence used in the paper’s title is from a speaker in Tennessee; it was reported at the Mid-America Linguistics Conference at the University of Oklahoma in 1978.
Interestingly, the usage was first recorded in England, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an English translation, published in London in the mid-17th century, of a French satirical novel:
“He gave me a good supper last night when ever I came within his doors” (The Comical History of Francion, 1655, an anonymous translation of Charles Sorel’s L’Histoire Comique de Francion, 1623).
The next OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of Scotticisms: “We will go to our dinner whenever the clock strikes two, when translated into English, means, We shall go to dinner when the clock strikes two” (from a letter to The Monthly Magazine; or British Register, London, May 1, 1800).
As you can see, the use of “whenever” in the sense of “when” has been around for hundreds of years. We’ve seen no evidence that it’s more common now than in the past, but it’s possible that the regional usage may be heard more widely because of modern travel and communications.
[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]