This could take a while…
English language learners struggle when commonly confused words pop up in reading and writing. Much like any time and anytime, a while and awhile have similar meanings and sound the same, but have different parts of speech. So when exactly do we use these terms?
|Meaning:||a period of time|
|Part of Speech:||article + noun|
|Meaning:||for a short time; for a while|
|Part of Speech:||adverb|
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)
- Any Time Vs. Anytime
- Commonly Confused Word Pairs
- Commonly Confused Prepositions
- Great Barrier Reef (see example of a while on page 4)
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