A While Vs. Awhile

This could take a while…

English language learners struggle when commonly confused words pop up in reading and writing. Much like any time and anytimea while and awhile have similar meanings and sound the same, but have different parts of speech. So when exactly do we use these terms?

A While

Meaning: a period of time
Pronunciation: /æˈwɑyl/
Part of Speech: article + noun
Sentence Positions:
  1. the object of a verb (V + O)
  2. after a preposition (Prep + N)
Examples:
  • It has been a while since I saw that movie.
  • Bread will go stale after a while.
  • We will leave in a while.

Awhile

Meaning: for a short time; for a while
Pronunciation: /æˈwɑyl/
Part of Speech: adverb
Sentence Positions:
  1. after a verb (V + Adv)
  2. at the end of a sentence (SVO + Adv)
Examples:
  • I need to rest awhile.
  • We waited awhile, but she never showed up.
  • I’m just going to stand here awhile.

Tips & Tricks

If you can replace it with “for a while,” use awhile. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style‘s FAQ had a great answer to a debate about take a while vs. take awhile (correct answer: take a while).

It is true that either an adverb or an object can follow a verb. But the adverb awhile means for a while, which clearly should not follow take (compare stay awhile, which survives expansion to stay for a while).

  • It took awhile. = It took for a while.
  • We stayed awhile. = We stayed for a while.

I also found a great tip on Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips blog. If you can replace it with a noun about time, use a while. If you can replace it with an adverb of manner, use awhile.

  • It’s been an hour. = It’s been a while.
  • Go play quietly. = Go play awhile.

Oxford Dictionaries has a good usage summary to share with your learners if they’re still confused:

The single word awhile is an adverb meaning “for a short time,” and should not be confused with the noun use of a while, “a period of time”: stand here awhile, but we stood there for a while

  • We stood there awhile.
  • We stood there for a while.

Awhile or A While After a Preposition?

Can awhile be used as the object of a preposition? This is something I would only discuss with my higher-level learners. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says that awhile is often seen and heard in this position, but warns that grammar sticklers consider it to be incorrect.

  • We sat around and talked for a while. (correct)
  • We sat around and talked for awhile. (okay, but considered wrong by some)

Your higher-level learners should also be aware that if the preposition is part of a phrasal verb or verb + preposition expression, then we need to use the adverb awhile. (This also follows the handy tip about using awhile when we can replace it with for a while mentioned above.)

  • Will you stick around awhile? (correct; around is part of the verb expression stick around)
  • Will you stick around a while? (incorrect)

Related Resources

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