Awhile vs A While

Last week another writer asked me why I wrote a while instead of awhile in the following sentence: After a while, I didn’t notice the cigarette smell.

Years ago, I would have written awhile, but after having editors change that to a while so many times, I now automatically split the word without thinking of why. To answer her question, I had to ask myself why I did it or why or when the word should be split into two words. Here’s what I learned.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the adverb awhile, meaning “for a short time,” should be written as one word (we paused awhile). The noun phrase, meaning “a period of time,” especially when preceded by a preposition, should be written as two words (Margaret rested for a while; we’ll be there in a while).

Merriam Webster explains the difference in usage in a similar way, and on-line gives several helpful examples and shows how different national publications use the word/words. (However, the site points out that not all publications follow the rule.)

Merriam Webster’s Definition: Awhile is an adverb that means “for a while,” whereas “while” is a noun meaning “a period of time.” Generally, you should use the two word form, “a while,” when following a preposition (I will read for a while), or with the words ago or back (a while ago/back). The singular word “awhile” should be used to modify a verb (I will wait awhile) and can usually replace any usage of “for a while.”

Okay, so, the general rule is:

‘Awhile’ is typically used to modify a verb: “I’m going to sit and read awhile.” ‘A while’ is typically used after a preposition: “I’m going to read for a while longer.”

Got it; however, don’t be surprised if you find periodicals and/or books that don’t follow the above rule. In my case, I do what the my editor says.

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16 Responses to Awhile vs A While

  1. Susie says:

    This is the new thing I learned today. Thank you for helping me be smarter.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susie, I love it when someone asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to because I then have to do some research and the process makes me smarter.

  2. Diana Stout says:

    Explained perfectly. The difference in how the word is being used: as an adverb or a noun. 🙂

  3. Here’s something I see often: ‘alright’ when it should be ‘all right.’

  4. John says:

    These are the delightful subtleties that make language such fun

  5. Anne Stone says:

    There are a lot of words like this. You could do a series of blogs on it. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      Anne, that and which are words (when to use one or the other) that confuse me. I think I may have blogged about those two words in the past (or read a blog about them), but I still don’t feel I know when to use one or the other.

  6. Thanks Maris, now I know

  7. Thanks for this reminder, Maris. I tend to mix them up. As for all right and alright, I cringe when I see alright. I used to ask my students if they would use alwrong. That helped us all to remember.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Bette, I have the same reaction when I see alright. I fear that will be the way it’s spelled in the not too distant future, but I’ll continue using all right.