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
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.

Quiz
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)

8 thoughts on “a while vs. awhile

  1. 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!🙂

    • I would characterize it as an indefinite countable noun that can’t be plural. That is, you can count to one. It does take “the,” as in “all the while.”

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

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