Often the source of confusion for writers, awhile and a while are homophones; they’re pronounced the same but have different meanings. Additionally, they both are considered different parts of speech, which makes their difference even more important!
A While Definition
A while is a noun phrase, meaning “a period of time.”
A while is a two-word expression, and to be even more precise, a two-word noun phrase. A noun phrase is a group of words or a word that can serve as the subject, the object, or the complement in a sentence.
A while functions as an article-noun combination, being comprised of the article “a” and the noun “while”. There are a few tricks you can use to tell if you are dealing with an article-noun combo. For example, swapping out another noun and keeping an understandable meaning is a great way to check if you are truly looking at an article-noun combo.
A while is in more widespread use than awhile, likely due to its simplicity. You may also see while used on its own, sometimes following an adjective.
- We watched Garfield for a little while.
- He made us do homework for a long while!
- It’s been a long while since I have eaten sushi.
- I haven’t attended a luncheon in a short while.
Awhile is an adverb, meaning “for a period of time.” Essentially, awhile is “for” plus “a while.” Since it’s an adverb, awhile functions just like other adverbs.
- Tim waited patiently for the bus.
In the sentence above, “patiently” is the adverb that describes the way Tim waited. Awhile works in the same way:
- Tim waited awhile for the bus.
When to Use Awhile vs A While
Here is a quick way to tell whether to use awhile or a while.
To recap, both describe a vague period of time. However, if you need a noun, you use the two-word version (a while). When you need an adverb, you use the one-word version (awhile).
Here is a quick test you can perform to make sure you’re using the correct one – substitute a while or awhile with other nouns or adverbs:
If you can replace it with a noun representing an interval of time, such as “a week” or “a minute,” you need the two-word version: a while.
- She has not seen him in a week. / She has not seen him in a while.
If you can replace it with an adverb such as “impatiently” or “quietly”, you need the one-word version: awhile. Awhile is also commonly replaced with phrases such as “for a short time” and “for a short period of time”.
- He waited impatiently on the couch. / He waited awhile on the couch.
Many common phrases contain a while. For example, if something hasn’t taken place in a long time, we say it’s been a while. And when something takes a long time to happen, we say it takes quite a while.
You’ve probably taken note that none of the phrases above used the word awhile. That’s because awhile can only function as a replacement for the phrase for a while. Awhile also cannot be used with prepositions since you can’t say, “Go there in for a while.” A while, however, is much more versatile.
Are ” A While” and “Awhile” Prepositional Phrases?
Neither a while nor awhile are prepositional phrases.
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that includes a preposition and its object. The object of a preposition is usually a noun or a verb, and the phrase modifies the noun or verb.
More often than not, prepositional phrases modify either nouns or verbs. Such prepositions are known as adjectival and adverbial phrases, respectively.
A while is a noun phrase comprised of an indefinite article (a) and noun (while).
- “Sorry, if you want to record to a solid-state device, such as a big hulking DRAM, too bad. Wait a while.” – Forbes (1998)
In the previous sentence, a while describes a span of time that a person should wait.
The word awhile is an adverb and not a prepositional phrase but is typically part of one. Usually, you use the single-word variation with the word “for.” The following sentence is an example of how professional writers use it.
- “They would then be free either to take their chances with salary arbitration on a year-to-year basis, or to demand a far richer extension from their employer. The notion of human-capital contracts for professional athletes has been around for awhile.” – The Economist (2014)
In the previous sentence, “for awhile” describes an unspecified period of time.
- To create a welcoming atmosphere, we have decided to place comfortable chairs so that our customers can rest awhile.
- He said goodbye to his tortured artist persona and began to crack a smile once in a while.
- Although it was difficult in the beginning, after a while, I felt better about my decision.