Awhile vs. A While
Awhile is an adverb that means “for a while,” and a while is a two-word noun phrase that means “a period of time.” Typically, a while is found after a preposition (after a while) and with ago/back (a while ago/back). Awhile is found in all other contexts (dance awhile).
When it comes to a while vs. awhile, most hardcore grammar enthusiasts would advise using the noun phrase a while after prepositions, and the adverb awhile in all other contexts.
Let’s dance for a while.
Won’t you stay awhile?
You can’t go wrong with following this guideline.
But if you’re one of those that likes to challenge the status quo, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that a while can also modify a verb. Confused? We don’t blame you. We’ll explain below.
“Awhile” vs. “A While”
First, let’s dissect the traditional rule.
Awhile is one word. It’s an adverb that means “for a while.”
Want to chat awhile?
They danced awhile.
I’m going to lie down and sleep awhile.
A while is a two-word noun phrase. A is an article and while is a noun that means “a period of time.” The consensus is that this noun phrase should come after a preposition or with ago or back.
Every once in a while I go hiking.
After a while, everyone fell asleep.
We left for a while.
I got a new job a while ago.
Elliot left a while back.
To make sure you’re using the correct phrase, you can perform a test by replacing the adverb or noun phrase with another. For example:
Let’s chat awhile.
Let’s chat quietly.
We left for a while.
We left for an hour.
That’s simple enough, right? The argument arises when you realize that a handful of noun phrases can function as an adverbial phrase by modifying a verb. Take for example this morning.
He arrived this morning.
In the sentence above, the noun phrase this morning specifies the time at which the action was completed.
So, it wouldn’t be entirely farfetched to say that a while can also sometimes function as an adverbial phrase. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to see a while modifying a verb. Similarly, the use of awhile after a preposition is also increasing.
In A While, Crocodile
You’ve come here looking for answers on when to use a while or awhile. Are you really surprised that there’s a bit of a gray area? It’s the English language, after all.
If you prefer not to stir things up, follow the most common guideline:
- Use a while after prepositions (or with ago and back) and awhile everywhere else.
Yes, English can be confusing every once in a while, but don’t let that discourage you. LanguageTool—a multilingual spelling and grammar checker—can help you write pristine texts despite all the ambiguous rules.