"A While" Versus "Awhile"

A while and awhile have different meanings. A while is a noun phrase and means “a period of time.” In contrast, awhile is an adverb, and it means “for a time.” This may seem confusing, so keep reading for several helpful examples and tricks.

Mignon Fogarty
"A While" Versus "Awhile"


In a previous Grammar Girl post, I talked about using while to mean although, but another point about while can confound people: What is the difference between a while and awhile?

A while describes a time, a noun. The article a before while is a sure sign that you're dealing with a noun. Notice in the following sentence that you could replace a while with another article-noun combination such as a year:

It's been a while since Squiggly tried marmite.

It’s been a year since Squiggly tried marmite.

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Both of those sentences describe a length of time: a while is more general and a year is more specific, but they’re both a length of time. (Actually, when you use a year like that, it’s usually also at least somewhat general because it probably hasn’t been exactly a year since Squiggly tried marmite.)

Awhile means "for a time,” and it's an adverb. Notice in the following sentence that you could replace awhile with another adverb such as quietly:

Go play awhile.

Go play quietly.


Finally, just to make it confusing, if you rephrase Go play awhile and replace the adverb with a prepositional phrase, you need the noun again because an adverb can't be the object of the preposition.

Go play awhile. (The adverb is modifying the verb.)

Go play for a while. (The article and noun are the object of the preposition.)

The Quick and Dirty Tip is that awhile and a while both describe a vague length of time, but you use the one-word version when you need an adverb and the two-word version when you need a noun.

To tell the difference, you can test your sentence with other nouns and adverbs. If you can replace a while with another article and noun such as an hour or a year, you know you want the two-word version. If you can replace awhile with another adverb such as quietlylonger, or briefly, you know you want the one-word version.

NOTE: As is so often the case, English usage isn’t simple. Most sources I checked (Chicago, Garner, AP Stylebook) recommend the guidelines I give in this article, but I found one dissenter: an American Heritage Dictionary usage note says that the noun phrase a while can be used adverbially, so that both Go play awhile and Go play a while are correct. I’m sticking with my advice, but I thought you should know that although it is the most common advice and the safest choice, it’s not universal.

Also, Garner and the Merriam-Webster online dictionary note that the use of awhile as the object of a preposition (Go play for awhile) is increasing. It is still most often called an error, however, and Garner calls it a “stage 1” error in his ranking system, which means it is the least acceptable kind of error.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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