What’s The Difference Between “A While” And “Awhile”

What is the difference between a while and awhile?

Few word pairs capture the idiosyncrasies (“peculiar characteristics”) of the English language like a while and awhile do. Both of these terms are expressions of time, but one is written with a space while the other is one word.

In fact, these two terms represent different parts of speech. The two-word expression a while is a noun phrase, consisting of the article a and the noun while (which means “a period or interval of time”).

The one-word awhile is an adverb that means “for a short time or period.” Although these definitions are similar (and although the terms can sometimes be used interchangeably), there are a few simple rules that can help you keep them straight.


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How do you use a while and awhile correctly?

The noun phrase a while can (and often does) follow a preposition, such as for or in. Here’s an example: He said he would be home in a while.

The adverb awhile cannot follow a preposition. This is a rule that makes sense if you revisit the definition of the term (“for a short time or period”) and drop it into a sentence: He said he would be home in for a short time or period. However, if we get rid of the preposition and rewrite it as He said he would be home awhile, the sentence works with a slightly altered meaning (he will be home for a short time instead of he will be home in a period of time).

How do you use while on its own?

The base word in both of these expressions, while, is most commonly a conjunction, meaning “during,” “although,” or “throughout the time that.” Here’s an example: She ate the cookie dough while he greased the baking sheetWhile can also be a verb meaning “to cause (time) to pass, especially in some easy or pleasant manner.” Example: She whiled away the hours ruminating on the differences between awhile and a while.

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