What are 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.
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 are helpful in keeping 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 sheet.”
While 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.”