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Awhile vs. a while

Awhile is an adverb meaning for a while, and it only works where it would bear replacement with that three-word phrase. Where for a while wouldn’t work in its place, it is probably not an adverb, so it should be two words: a while.

For instance, in the sentence, “Guests waited awhile for food,” awhile is one word because it is an adverb modifying the verb waited (note also that for a while would work in its place). In the sentences, “We have a while left to wait,” and, “I saw her a while ago,”  a while is two words because while functions as a noun.

Awhile has existed in various spellings since the days of Old English,1 but there is a mistaken belief among some English speakers that the word is a new form and thus questionable. That’s why it is so often unnecessarily rendered as two words. And in fact, if you are not comfortable with the word and are unsure if you’re using it correctly, making it two words is always safe because no one will consider it wrong. But careful writers who understand where to deploy the adverbial awhile need not fear it.

Examples


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But if they give him The Tonight Show back, maybe it ends up all right after a while. [Hollywood.com]

Starlings foray across the land and rest awhile on the sunlit twigs of ash. [Guardian]

After a while, Rawls came in to let another set of children have a chance. [Washington Post]

Crazy Horse watched this awhile and then rode down the river where some men were going out to repair the talking wires. [Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas]

We’ve been talking for a while when Baroness Campbell of Surbiton suddenly cuts to the chase, and leaves me speechless. [Telegraph]

Beyond the bar, soft white leather booths beckon you to sit, take off your coat and stay awhile. [In Arkansas]

Source

1. Awhile in the OED (subscription required)

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Comments

  1. I sure do hope that you’re around. I have a question about “awhile vs. a while.”

    In this sentence, the person is talking about something that happened long ago. He says, We’re talking back awhile.

    I know that “for” is built into “awhile,” and means “for a while.” But I’m not sure in the sentence above if that applies. Doesn’t make sense to me, so is it one word or two?

    Thanks much!

    • Grammarist says:

      Good question. If we’re reading it correctly, the sentence would mean the same if “back” and “a while” were switched–“We’re talking a while back.” Is this correct? If so, then “while” is a noun, and “back” is an adjective modifying it. In this case, “a while” should definitely be two words.

      “Awhile” might actually cause confusion in this case, because readers who see it as an adverb might want to apply it to the verb “talking,” in which case the sentence would mean, roughly, “We’re talking for a while about something that happened long ago.”

      Let us know if this is confusing. This post probably needs a revision soon, because it might be a little too light on explanation.

      • Thanks so much. I wish that I could change the sentence around, but I can’t because it’s verbatim. I have to leave it that way. I’ll go with “a while.”

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  3. Ted Cherry says:

    For people that live in the ‘real world’ what difference does it really make? I sat down for a while, or I sat down for awhile? Either way the message that someone did sit down was delivered.

    • “what difference does it really make”

      The question is what is the proper grammar to use. Better grammar makes you look good. For the same reason, it is better to spell something correctly.

      • Ted Cherry says:

        Very few folks educated enough in proper grammar to even notice. Again, what difference does it make, unless you will be scrutinized by some English professor while taking some type of test. It’s not a perfect world! :)

        • Having good writing skills says a lot about you; people are able to guess your level of education and social skills from your writing. Thus, writing skills, like speaking skills, do not go unnoticed.

        • Yours is a ridiculous position. “The ignorant don’t know the difference, so why speak or write properly?” First, because the difference determines meaning, and not all of us are too stupid to not recognize the difference, and therefore not all of us will just be able assume what the writer means. Second, we all know that the world is not perfect, and that mistakes will be made, but if one can avoid the mistakes, and eliminate at least some level of the imperfection, why would one choose to leave the imperfection? This instance is not a case of individuality, where imperfection is a reflection of one’s humanity; rather, it is simply about clear communication. If one can communicate clearly, or learn to, why would he or she choose not to?

  4. In this paragraph used in our mass guide, I’m most certain that the use of ‘awhile’ is correct…
    Let us pray for those who are left to mourn their
    loss. May they be thinking today not of the darkness of death but of the
    brightness of the Resurrection, and of the day when they will meet again their
    brother/sister whom they have lost awhile.

    • “awhile” here is not used correctly. The sentence does not make sense the way it is written. In this case, the word, “awhile” is not needed in the sentence. It’s awkward.

  5. FirstSpear says:

    Surely any word-pairs that regularly have other words inserted between, such as, in this case, “a short while ago”; “in a little while”, must always be two separate words. “Awhile” must be only colloquial, as in “Set awhile.” (Jed Clampett.), which would allow its use only in conversation. Further, it is very much related to nationality. Most US authors, including Stephen KIng, always use “awhile”, while UK authors almost exclusively use “a while”, whatever the circumstances.

  6. This distinction is BS. It’s made up. You don’t say “stay aminute” or “wait amoment.” This is just people making up grammar rules to feel superior.

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