a while vs. awhile

A while and awhile are tricky. Sometimes it is two words, and sometimes it is just one word. This lesson will teach you when to use which word.

a while
A while is a noun that means an unspecified amount of time.

Example: It has been a while since the dinosaur played checkers.

Awhile is an adverb that means an unspecified amount of time.

Example: The dinosaur asked her to wait awhile.

How you can tell when to use awhile or a while
Since awhile is an adverb (a word that describes a verb), you can replace it with another adverb. Let’ s use patiently.

Example: The dinosaur asked her to wait patiently.

However, note our first example. You can’t replace a while with an adverb, or else it looks funny:

It has been patiently since the dinosaur played checkers.

So, if you replace awhile / a while with an adverb and the sentence still makes sense, then use awhile (one word). If it doesn’t make sense, use a while (two words).

Another trick is to look for the verb. If awhile comes directly after a verb, then it should be one word. Note our earlier example:

The dinosaur asked her to wait awhile.

You can see that awhile comes directly after the verb wait.

What about prepositional phrases?
If you see a preposition (such as for or in) before a while, make sure you have written a while as two words.

Example: The dinosaur asked her to wait for a while.

Example: The dinosaur said he’d come back in a while.

Test your word choice skills with a little quiz. Replace the blank with either a while or awhile. The answers are at the bottom.

1.     The dinosaur eyed his prey for _______.

2.     The dinosaur hid ______ and eyed his prey

3.     It had been _______ until the dinosaur made his attack.

Answers: 1. a while (because it’s in a prepositional phrase) 2. awhile (because it’s an adverb) 3. a while (because it’s a noun)

About Erin Roof

Editor for hire. Dictionary collector. Part-time cat lady. Word nerd blogging at grammarpartyblog.com
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7 Responses to a while vs. awhile

  1. Stef says:

    Next to the “like” button there should be a “love” button so I can both like and love this post.

  2. Here’s a question:

    Since “a while” is a noun, is it a countable noun, because it takes the indefinite singular article “a”? Surely it can’t be, because it can’t be pluralized, nor can it take the definite article “the”. I guess it’s just a noun phrase then, yeah? I should know this, shouldn’t I? Bleh, it’s too late.

    Nice post! :)

  3. suekenney says:

    Found your blog through another blog that you had liked. I really like what I see here. And I’ve often wondered about a while and awhile – never knew there was a difference in usage because one was a noun and the other an adverb. Thanks for the education!

  4. Archon's Den says:

    You could do a whole post about the differences between single words and their two word equals.

    If a man turns in to a motel, he’s probably just a commercial traveller. If a man turns into a motel, there was magic involved.

  5. SLG says:

    Are you sure about the answer for question 3? Isn’t “been” a verb? Wouldn’t that make the answer “awhile”?

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