- Awhile is an adverb, meaning “for a period of time.”
- A while is a noun phrase, meaning “a period of time.”
In 2001, American band Staind released a song called “It’s Been Awhile” as a single from their album Break the Cycle. Even today, it’s still one of the band’s most recognizable songs, thanks to lead singer Aaron Lewis’s powerful vocals and the song’s emotional content. While credit should always be given where it’s due, some grammar sticklers might be a little annoyed that the word awhile in the song’s title is technically incorrect. It should have been written out in two words: “It’s Been A While.”
The Difference Between Awhile and A While
Often the source of confusion for writer, these two words are homophones; they’re pronounced the same but have different meanings.
Related: See our other articles on homophones – Whose vs. Who’s and Hear Hear vs. Here Here
They only have a slight spelling difference: awhile is written as one word; a while is written as two. Since both words have to do with time, how much difference does one space make?
Actually, it makes a big difference! Even though they have lot in common, these two words are very different. In fact, that little space makes awhile and a while two difference parts of speech (as you will see below).
A While Definition
A while is a two-word expression, and to be even more precise, a two-word noun phrase (a noun phrase is group of words or a word that can serve as the subject, the object, or the complement in a sentence). The noun-phrase a while is made up of the article “a” and the noun “while.” There’s no need to explain the definition of “a,” so let’s focus on “while,” which means an unspecified amount of time. Therefore, this noun phrase simply means “a period of time.”
Awhile is an adverb. It is defined as “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 and When to Use 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), and 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.
He waited impatiently on the couch. / He waited awhile on the couch.
There are many common phrases that 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.
In the previous sentence, a while describes a span of time that a person should wait.
The word “awhile” is an adverb 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.
- Cash bars allow the adventurous and wealthy to continue abusing themselves awhile longer.
- In order 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 began to feel better about my decision.
Now test your newfound knowledge with this short quiz!