It can be difficult to remember the difference between awhile and a while. They are awfully close in their appearance—separated by just one tiny space.
Plus, you don’t really have conversational clues to aid you because they sound indistinguishable when spoken.
But despite their similar sounds and appearance, these words do have different functions within a sentence, so it is important for us to keep track of them to maintain clarity in our writing.
What is the Difference Between Awhile and A While?
Today I want to go over these words, their definitions, their functions in a sentence, and a few ways to remember the difference between them.
After reading this post, you shouldn’t have any trouble remembering awhile or a while in your future writing.
When to Use Awhile
- Can you stay here awhile longer?
- Congress delayed the vote awhile, but eventually the bill passed.
Notice that since awhile is an adverb, you can replace it with other adverbs in your sentence. For example,
- Go play awhile.
Could be changed to,
- Go play quietly.
- Go play happily.
When to Use A While
What does a while mean? A while is actually two separate words. “A” is an article, and “while” is a noun meaning a period of time.
When you combine the two of them, they form what is called a noun phrase, which is simply a phrase that plays the role of a noun. For example,
- I’m going away for a while.
- It’s been a while since I’ve eaten sushi.
If you notice, you can replace “a while” with other article-noun combinations.
- I’m going away for a long time.
- It’s been a year since I’ve eaten sushi.
This makes “a while” somewhat tricky because despite it being a noun phrase, it can also sometimes function as an adverb. Noun phrases that denote a period of time can be used as adverbs.
For example, one day.
- We’ll move out to the suburbs one day.
The same is true for a while. It can be used as an adverb, making both of the following sentences acceptable.
- Can we stop and rest a while?
- Can we stop and rest awhile?
“A while” here in these sentences is functioning similar to phrases like “for an hour.”
- Can we stop and rest for an hour?
Can Awhile and A While Be Used Interchangeably?
Now, I know what you’re asking yourself, if “a while” and “awhile” can both function as adverbs, can they both just be used interchangeably?
The answer is no.
When writing, we need to be careful when using these words with preposition phrases. Only “a while” (two separate words) can follow a prepositional phrase. For example,
- Let’s stay for awhile. WRONG
- Let’s stay for a while. CORRECT
The reason only “a while” will work in this sentence is because prepositions take objects, and only a noun phrase can be the object of a preposition, not an adverb. If we were to remove the preposition “for,” thereby removing the prepositional phrase, both would be acceptable since the noun phrase “a while” can be used adverbially.
- Let’s stay awhile. CORRECT
- Let’s stay a while. CORRECT
Remember the Difference
If you can remember this easy rule, you won’t ever misuse awhile vs. a while again.
Awhile is used as an adverb, and both are one single word.
A while is noun phrase and used after prepositional phrases. All of these are two words.
Summary: A While vs. Awhile
Is it a while or awhile? Although these words can be tough to remember, it’s important to use them correctly because a while vs. awhile do have different functions inside a sentence.
Awhile is an adverb and cannot appear after prepositional phrases.
A while is a noun phrases but can also function adverbially. Only a while can come after prepositional phrases.