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A While vs. Awhile

Express a period of time or something that occurs briefly

Cab caught in traffic
 

A while vs. Awhile

A WHILE

A while expresses "a period of time" (an indefinite amount). The [article + noun] is a noun phrase which commonly occurs after the preposition for or in, but may also occur with the preposition omitted (understood from context). Mostly, the article a is used, but also the occurs in the expression all the while.

A PERIOD OF TIME 
NOUN PHRASE IN A PREP. PHRASE

We've been stuck here in traffic for a while. (prep phrase modifies verb)

The traffic will be moving in a while.

After a while, we were moving again. 

NOUN PHRASE

It takes a while for the traffic to unclog.  (unclog – flow freely again)

Give it a while to clear up.

NOUN PHRASE w/ PREPOSITION NOT INCLUDED BUT UNDERSTOOD

We've been stuck here in traffic __ a while¹.  (prep. omitted)

We may be here __ a short while more.   (a brief period) 

Or it could be __ a long while!   (an extended period) 

EXPRESSIONS

Two cars crashed and the drivers were arguing. All the while, we were sitting in a taxi unable to pass. (for all the period of time)

I usually take the subway to work. Once in a while, I take a taxi.

AWHILE

Awhile expresses "for a short period of time" (briefly, temporarily). The word is fused together from a preposition and noun [a- + while]. The prefix a- originated from the preposition on but in awhile has the meaningf for. Awhile is adverbial, modifies a verb, and is categorized as a temporal (time) preposition. For this reason, it is repetitive to place it after another preposition.

FOR A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME, BRIEFLY
PREPOSITION IN A PREP. PHRASE

~We've been stuck here in traffic for awhile. ("for for-a short time")

~The traffic will be moving in awhile.   ("in for-a short time")

~After awhile, we were moving again.   ("After for-a short time")

ADVERBIAL / PREPOSITION

We'll sit here awhile until the traffic unclogs. (modifies the verb)

ADVERBIAL [PREPOSITION]

We've been stuck here in traffic awhile.  (modifies the verb)

I'll read awhile.  (briefly) 

The driver is napping awhile.

SHARES SOME BUT NOT ALL PROPERTIES OF A PREPOSITION

We stayed awhile. (modifies a verb)

We stayed awhile the ____  (does not accept a complement, already includes one)

*Let's talk exactly awhile. (does not accept a modifier)

 

*not used, incorrect / ~commonly used, not preferred but not incorrect

The prefix a- originates historically from the preposition on but now includes meanings of to, in, into, on, for.  The prefix occurs mostly with spatial words, for example, around, about, abroad, aboard, aside. (Huddleston 514-5) 

awhile is a fused word: a- (preposition) + while (noun). It is like other prepositions in that it modifies the verb; however, it is unlike other prepositions in that it does not accept a complement, an "object noun" (it already includes a noun), and it does not accept a modifier such as "straight", "right" or "exactly". See Preposition Properties.

¹ The words awhile and a while can be confusing because they sound the same; they differ slightly in meaning and in their use. Some grammarians express a slight preference for a while:

"I'll stay for a while is acceptable,  I'll stay for awhile is not. (Note that if the preposition is dropped, both I'll stay a while and I'll stay awhile are acceptable, since the noun phrase a while can be used adverbially."  (American Heritage Dictionary Online

Garner also points out that a while commonly occurs in use as an adverbial (Garner 81) 

"The tendency towards writing the expression as one word in all circumstances is being assisted by the fact that in may contexts awhile could easily be replaced by for a while without loss of sense of rhythm…"  (Burchfield and Fowler 83)

Other sources (AP 365) (Gregg 83) (Robinson 31). See Works Cited below.

Also see related pages Temporal (Time) Expressions and Temporal Prepositions that Include Nouns.

 

 

 

 

 

While

Additional Meanings

Accepts cards
 

While

VARIANT MEANING EXAMPLES

WHILE (N) 

a period of time

We'll leave in a while.  We haven't seen him for a while(a period of time)

WHILE (P)

although

While never a big talker, he did gossip a lot.  (connective preposition, concession)

WHILE (P)

related to the same time period

I was answering my email while he was talking to his friend. (connective preposition, time related)

ALL THE WHILE (NP)

throughout the period of time

We kept calling them but heard a "busy" signal. All the while we were calling them, they were calling us.

WORTH ONE'S WHILE (EXPR.)

a good use of time

— I'm trying to count all these jelly beans.

— Are you sure that is worth your while.  

while is often confused with wile (1) a trick, an enticement [N]; She used her wiles to intrigue him; (2) beguile, entice, trick [V]  Video games wiled him away from his studies;  (3) wile away (expression) waste or spend time; He wiles away the day playing video games.  The cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner is well-known and loved.

 

Word Categories: N – Noun; V – Verb; Aux – Auxiliary; Adj – Adjective; Adv – Adverb; P –Preposition; Det –Determiner.

Phrasal Categories: NP – Noun Phrase; VP – Verb Phrase; AdjP – Adjective Phrase; AdvP – Adverb Phrase; PP – Prepositional Phrase; DP – Determinative Phrase.

 

 

 

 

Awhile

One Meaning

 

 

Awhile

VARIANT MEANING EXAMPLES

AWHILE  (P)

briefly, temporarily, for a short time

We stayed awhile.  (adverbial, preposition)

  "a while used adverbially for awhile" on Garner's Language Change Index: Stage 3 (of 5)

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

*We haven't heard from you for awhile. ("for for-while",  not used)

*I live awhile away from them.

SOLUTION

We haven't heard from you for a while.

I live a while away from them.  (a brief travel time)

 

*Yellow highlighting indicates example of incorrect usage.
Solution - lightbulbPop-Q Awhile

 

 

IMAGE

Taxi cabs stopped in traffic. Pixabay, 21 July 2013. Licensed by CC0. Accessed 2 Mar. 2019.

"Orangestad –Tourist Market". By Roger W, Flickr, 15 Jan 2014. Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0. Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.

 

 

 

Practice 1

Carribean Market 

Orangestad Tourist Market
 

 

Complete the sentence with the word that is logical—awhile or a while.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or "Check 1-10" button at the bottom.

 

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