A While vs Awhile

By Ali Hale

One of our readers, Robert, wrote to ask Daily Writing Tips:

Here’s a couple of words I use all the time interchangeably. But are they? a while vs. awhile Help me out, o oracle!

No problem, Robert! This one’s pretty easy to grasp:

A while is a noun meaning “a length of time”

  • “I slept for a while.”
    – (compare with “I slept for a bit” and “I slept for three hours”)
  • “I was away from my desk for a while.”
    – (compare with “I was away from my desk for two minutes”)

Awhile is an adverb, meaning “for a time,” or literally, “for a while”.

  • “I slept awhile before dinner.”
    (compare with “I slept deeply before dinner” and “I slept badly before dinner”.)

As you can see, the words can be used almost interchangeably in some cases – but a while needs to be accompanied by a preposition, such as “for” (“I slept for a while”) or “ago” (“I left work a while ago”). Awhile always means “for a while”.

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38 Responses to “A While vs Awhile”

  • Farfield

    Great tip! I think I made that mistake for quite a while now 🙂

    I mean saying “I slept a while” which should of course be accompanied by ‘for’!

  • sally

    Re: a while vs. awhile……

    I hear this frequently in restaurants: “Do you want your salad awhile?” or “Would you like your coffee awhile or with your meal?”

    Seems to be used in place of ‘while you wait’

  • David

    You do your readers a disservice by providing limited examples of “a while” usage. It doesn’t always have to be preceded by “for”; in fact, it often isn’t. For example, “I saw her a while ago,” or “It’ll be a while before we can leave for the party.” Those are clearly instances in which “awhile” is not appropriate.

  • guardian angel

    I was late to read this post. I submitted my blog post a while ago (I think I am correct) and I noticed I used the wrong word.

    Glad to understand the difference.

    Thanks.

  • Ali

    Hi David,

    I think I covered this with my final paragraph:

    “a while needs to be accompanied by a preposition, such as “for” (“I slept for a while”) or “ago” (“I left work a while ago”).”

    In your latter example, “before” is the preposition.

    Let me know if you disagree!

    Best,

    Ali

  • Deborah

    Sally—where are you writing from? The usage of “while” for “while you wait” is intriguing. A regionalism perhaps?

  • David

    Ali, according to my dictionary (American Heritage), “ago” is an adverb or adjective, not a preposition. Likewise, “before” is an adjective, not a preposition. So I think you need to broaden your definition somewhat. (Also look up the meaning of “preposition.” )

  • Dennis Royman

    Good clear explanation. Good enough for me to take a while to tell you to keep up the good information.

  • Dennis Edell

    I love reading stuff like this. I write and blog a lot and every once in a while I get caught by a reader lol.

    Which reminds me….is “alot” even a word or just laziness?

  • David

    Dennis,

    No, “alot” is not a word; it’s either laziness or ignorance (or both). On the other hand “allot” is a word, although its definition is not what most people mean when they use “alot.” “Allot” means to distribute or parcel out, as in, say, land grants.

  • Dennis Edell

    Thanks, thats what I thought. I tend to use alot when my thumb wonks out on the spacebar but not on purpose lol.

  • Ellen

    David, according to my dictionary (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), “before” is a preposition, an adverb and a conjunction.

  • Precise Edit

    We see “alot” about as often as we see apostrophe-s for plurals, so often, in fact, that we added it to the list of top problems we address.

    Regarding “before”: The part of this speech for this word, like so many, depends on its usage. Are we describing where something is? “Before” is a preposition. Are we describing where an action occurs? “Before” is an adverb.

    Thinking about the restaurant example above: This may be a shortened form of “in a while,” as in “Do you want your coffee in a while or with your meal.” Perhaps this word is becoming another “alot.”

    Who was it that said: “Everything eventually floats to the bottom”?

    Now that our writing forums are open, I suspect that we’ll see a number of issues like this, though it’s been a while since we have addressed this specific issue.

  • Luke S.

    I thought “awhile” was defined as “in the act of whiling,” as in “I could while away the hours/Consorting with the flowers …”

    So that the request, “Stop and stay awhile” literally meant “Stay here while you’re whiling your time away.”

    “Awhile” has the same prefix as sleep does in “asleep,” or twitter does in “atwitter.”

    This also helps guide us when to use it as two words.

  • Tweakwindows

    Nice information.I have become a regular student here.Can also tell the diff btw A FEW & Few?

  • arbee

    hi,

    Keep the ball rolling, guys. But let’s hope we can keep our cool while (this is not referring to the subject matter) you impart your knowledge. The aim is to inform and help each other to avoid unnecessary mistakes in writing.

    Thank You.

  • Shirley Ware

    “While” can be a noun, an adverb, or a conjunction. “Awhile” is only an adverb. “A while” definitely does not have to follow a preposition, e.g. “for a while.” Sometimes it is a predicative nominative as in the sentence: “It has been a while.” Most often, following a form of the verb “to be,” “a while” will be the preferable construction. Action verbs will more often take “awhile.” Does that help?

  • ron

    we can “talk awhile” or “talk about something for a while”

  • Europa Turnage

    Is it awhile back or a while back ??

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Which is correct? She wanted to wait a while before contacting him or she wanted to awhile before contacting him.

    Thank you for your answer.

  • Kevin

    “It has been awhile.”
    or
    “It has been a while.”

    Are either of those okay? Going by your explanation the first would be, “It has been for a while.” That’s not correct. The second would need a preposition, so I’m confused. Thanks.

  • dreiser

    question:
    what’s the difference between out in awhile?and out for a while?and what is the correct grammar?just want to know..thanks in advance..

  • sevinc

    may i use a while ago with to be going to in past?for example i was going to clean it a while ago

  • cass

    This was very helpful! But what if you were to say, “Too long a while/awhile.” Would you use ‘a while’ or ‘awhile’?

  • Jim

    Here’s another one I can’t find a definitive answer on. It’s semi-related. When do you use “a ways” and when do you use “aways”? Or is one of them never okay? For example, “We walked down the road aways” seems correct. But “The farm was a ways down the road” also seems right. Any thoughts?

  • Judy

    Is it, “I need to lay down.” or “I need to lie down.”?

  • Gail

    You need to lie down awhile. First, take off your shoes and lay them there on the floor.

    Last night, I lay awake for quite a while tossing and turning. I couldn’t remember where I laid my shoes.

    I could have lain there forever. I no longer cared where I had laid my shoes.

  • Mike

    Yeah I don’t understand why people make the common widespread mistake of typing “alot”, are teachers wrongfully teaching this? The other one that drives me nuts is the apostrophe before “s” for plural, The funny thing is, when you address it with people, they snicker at you as if you’re nitpicking. I mean these are the same people that are filling out job applications and resumes, who wants to look like an idiot that slaughters 4th grade level grammar? Alot of people I guess…

  • Randy Swaggerty

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Black Hat SEO techniques don’t work anyway, correct?

  • Wei

    @Jim – I don’t think there’s such a word as aways with an “s” behind. You can say “We walk for some way down the road.”

    @Judy – Gail gave good examples for this, but I’ll just add on to it. There is often confusion between the verbs lie and lay. “Lie” does not take an object, while “Lay takes an object.

    To put it in a very layman fashion for easy understanding, it means that for “Lie”, the subject will commit the act of lying down itself e.g. “He lies down after a hard day at work”; “Lay” on the other hand, means that the subject will cause something else other than itself to be laid e.g. “He lays the knife on the table”, the knife being the object.

    The confusion arises, I believe, due to the fact that “Lay” is also the past tense for “Lie” e.g. “He lay down after a hard day at work”.

    Anyway, this is a common grammatical confusion and there is no shortage of clarification for it online. You can just google “Lie vs Lay”.

  • Mo

    Can you help me settle a debate? Is a while vs. awhile a rule that came about because of frequent misspellings and general ignorance (as is the case with “you’re welcome” and “you’re welcomed”), or have they always been two words? Thanks.

  • lucia

    a few and few… is the same idea of little and a little…

    a few is a positive idea few is a negative idea….

    example….

    She has a few chocolates in the fridge . She can still have her snacks….( some but not many).

    She has few chocolates in the fridge. She have to go to the market to buy some…..

  • James

    Mo.

    “Awhile” vs “A while” is not a rule.

    It’s two different things; one is an adverb, the other a noun.

  • James

    I thought “Awhile” , “A while” meant a long period of time.

    example “I haven’t seen you for a while now.”

    and I’ve been using it that way for a while now… lol ohh i did it again.

  • Tiza

    Hello,

    I’ve got a question about the word “a while vs. awhile.” It’s this sentence, and the person is saying that it happened a long time ago:

    We’re talking back awhile.

    So in this case, is it one word or two?

    Thanks

  • Dale A. Wood

    Before is a preposition in time, as in this example:

    “Back before the year 1776, America was a British colony.”

  • TED

    To simplify things, though not 100% correct English, which form (a while or awhile?) would be desired to use in all cases? If I use “a while” all of the time, would I be considered a perfect English abuser?

  • Susan

    Thanks for the answer. I enjoy good grammar. I did come up with a question for you.
    In the introductory paragraph you wrote:
    “Here’s a couple of words I use all the time interchangeably. But are they? a while vs. awhile Help me out, o oracle!”

    Question: Here’s = Here is. Is it correct to use “Here’s a couple of words…..” or would we write it this way “Here are a couple of words…?”

    Thanks for your reply
    Susan

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