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A While vs. Awhile: What's the Difference?
A while and awhile have a lot in common. The most obvious similarity is their shared spellings—or letters, to be more specific—and they both also relate to the concept of time.
But there’s one little difference—the space. That space has a lot of power. It turns one word into two and differentiates the part of speech represented by each of the terms, which affects the way each is used in a sentence.
For the most part (though not always, as you’ll see later), if “for a short time” or “for a time” would also work in your sentence, then use the adverb form, awhile.
What Does A While Mean?
A while is a two-word expression; it is a noun phrase.
We can tell that a while is a noun phrase because it contains an article (a), a space, and a noun (while).
A while is a thing, defined as a period of time or an interval of time.
There are no specific boundaries on how long that period of time actually is, so a while could mean an hour or a year, depending on its context.
- “I’ll be back from the grocery store in a while.”
This probably means an hour or so.
- “She didn’t recognize him at first; it had been a while since she had last seen him.”
This implies that it’s probably been months at least, but most likely years since “his” appearance had changed.
What Does Awhile Mean?
Awhile is a one-word version of the term a while. Because it is one word, and therefore doesn't have an article, the way we use it is different to how we use a while.
Awhile is an adverb. Dictionaries define it as for a while or for a short while. Awhile provides a bit more specificity than a while as to “how long” that time is. Awhile denotes a short amount of time. Still, “short” can be subjective, so as with "a while", context matters.
How to Use the Noun Phrase A While
In sentences, the two words a while serve as a unit and are often part of a prepositional phrase, following the prepositions for, after, and in.
“I’ll come over for a while.”
“I’ll see you in a while.”
“He came back after a while.”
You may see an adjective inserted between the two parts of the phrase as a way of defining how long a period of time a while represents in that sentence.
“We only stayed for a little while.”
“We laughed for quite a long while.”
“It shouldn’t take more than a short while to finish your homework.”
Though it’s common for a while to follow a preposition, it doesn't always. You can see how the phrase functions as a noun in these common contexts, used before ago and back.
“I saw him a while ago.”
“They visited us a while back.”
How to Use the Adverb Awhile
Awhile is an adverb, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adverbs provide answers to the questions: when, where, how, and to what extent—how much or how long?
Awhile answers how long and is used to modify verbs.
- “Let’s talk awhile.”
The adverb “awhile” modifies the verb “talk,” providing a measurement—for a short time—that the action will occur.
- “He cried awhile but then calmed down.”
Here, the adverb “awhile” modifies “cried,” explaining how long “he” was in distress.
For the most part (though not always, as you’ll see later), if “for a short time” or “for a time” would also work, then use the adverb form awhile.
Here are some examples of how to use this substitution test when you’re trying to figure out which form to use.
You want to say
- “I’ll stay a while / awhile.”
The substitution test:
- “I’ll stay for a short time.”
Since “for a short time” works In this example, maintaining the flow of the sentence and its meaning, you can use awhile. “I’ll stay awhile” = “I’ll stay for a short time.”
You want to say
- “I’ll stay for a while / awhile”
The substitution test:
- “I’ll stay for for a short time.”
In this example, the substitution doesn’t work—the double for doesn’t make sense. I’ll stay for a while ≠ I’ll stay for for a short time. For this sentence, you should use a while: I’ll stay for a while.
When Awhile and A While Are Tricky
So far it seems simple, right? A while is two words and is a noun phrase. Awhile is one word and is an adverb.
But: grammar. Grammatical concepts rarely stay within the realm of simplicity.
You see, a noun phrase sometimes acts like an adverb. I know.
“Can we stay a few more minutes?”
“Let’s wait an hour more.”
Those noun phrases (a few more minutes and an hour more) answer the question “how long” about their respective verbs.
Let’s break it down.
- Can we stay (verb)
- a few more minutes (noun phrase acting like an adverb as it answers for how long?)
- Let’s wait (verb)
- an hour more (noun phrase acting like an adverb answering how long?)
How does this complication affect a while and awhile?
Grammatically speaking, these sentences should use awhile.
- “Can we stay awhile?”
- “Let’s wait awhile more.”
These are the grammatically correct versions of those sentences.
However, did you notice that each noun phrase, working as an adverb in the examples, begins with a and a space? Sound familiar? It seems inconsistent to say that using a while in these instances (like an adverb) would be incorrect when it has the same structure as the noun phrases in the examples.
So, while awhile is grammatically correct, you probably won't be penalized if you use a while.
Examples of A While vs. Awhile Used Differently
You won’t be alone if you use the two-word form and the one-word form interchangeably in these trickier grammatical contexts. You’ll be in the company of professional publications!
In the examples below, we'll tell you which term is correct, but you'll see that even these professional writers use awhile and a while interchangeably.
The New York Times
In each of these examples, the term is used as an adverb (one word), but isn’t always written that way).
“Hello, Patrick,” she said. “It’s been a while.” (Patrick McGuire, It’s Been a While)
“Simon Pegg and Nick Frost know it’s been a while.” (Tom Power, British ‘X Files’)
“I hope I’m not making this more complicated than it ought to be (or garbling the grammar, honestly, it’s been awhile since I regularly consulted my Strunk & White)” (Caitlin Lovinger, Preposition Proposition)
The Huffington Post
In these examples, the grammatical situation is clearer and the noun phrase “a while” (two words) is the fitting option. However, these writers went the other way, and their editors clearly didn’t mind.
“Stop Watching The News (For Awhile)” (Dr. Bruce Weinstein)
“Could we all just shut up for awhile about this? Not a chance.” (Linda Bergthold)
... And More Variety
All uses in these examples call for the noun phrase a while, but as you can see, there’s some variation in what is actually used.
“The Magic might want to stay off Twitter for awhile after that Serge Ibaka trade” (Des Bieler, The Washington Post)
“If my paints hadn’t been under the ferns I would gladly have lingered awhile.” (Elizabeth Bailey, bbc.co.uk)
“Haven’t used Netflix in a while? Your subscription could get canceled” (Frank Pallotta, cnn.com)
Two Words or One? Is There a “Right” Answer?
For the most part, there is. But also for the most part—or in large part, at least— that rule is not steadfastly followed (or maybe just not understood). The interchangeable use of awhile and a while is common.
If you want to do your best to get it right (and why not?), these reminders can help:
A while is a noun phrase; it is used to describe a “thing,”—a period of time.
Use a while after prepositions
Use a while before back and ago
If you can substitute the “while” part of the phrase with another time-related word, you can use a while (for example: a minute, a month, an hour).
Awhile is an adverb. It is used to modify verbs.
Use awhile to answer “how long?”
If you can substitute “for a short time,” you’re (generally) safe to use awhile.
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This post has gone on for a while, and I need to give my brain a rest. I’m going to relax in the sunshine awhile. I hope you’re able to do the same!