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.