Awhile vs. A While – How To Distinguish These Words

12.10.23 Commonly confused words Time to read: 5min

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When crafting your academic papers, you might come across words that are often muddled with each other, known as commonly confused words. Such confusion can adversely affect the quality of your paper, since academic writing demands exactness and clarity to articulate arguments effectively. It’s crucial to discern the difference between two frequently misused terms, “awhile” and “a while,” to evade such perplexity.

Definition of “awhile vs. a while”

Both “awhile” and “a while” denote an unspecified length of time, their grammatical functions differ. “Awhile” is an adverb that directly modifies a verb, whereas “a while” is a noun phrase that is typically used with a preposition to indicate the length of time associated with an action.

Awhile

… is an adverb indicating a short period of time, yet its exact length is determined by the context in which it is used.

A while

… is a noun phrase referring to an unspecified length of time, and is often used with prepositions like “for” or “in.”

Focusing on the context, when wanting to distinguish between these two terms, is crucial. Generally, you use “awhile” when you need an adverb to modify a verb, indicating a brief duration. Use “a while” when a noun phrase is required. This is typically followed by a preposition, like “for” or “in.”

Using the word “awhile”

The adverb “awhile” holds a specific place in expressing an undefined, brief span of time. This word aids in imparting a sense of time-lapse without requiring a precise temporal measurement. Despite its straightforward definition, the usage of “awhile” can intersect with the similar phrase “a while,” leading to common misuses.

“Awhile” as an adverb

“Awhile” is an adverb that conveys the idea of a short period of time. Its usage is akin to other adverbs that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, providing a temporal context to the action in focus.

Examples

  • We chatted awhile about the old times.
  • Can you wait awhile until the rain stops?
  • She waited awhile before going to bed.

Tip for using “awhile” correctly

Incorporating alternative expressions for “awhile” can enrich your writing, reduce repetitiveness, and convey your ideas with greater subtlety. Here are four synonyms for “awhile” accompanied by example sentences.

Synonyms Examples
Briefly She stopped by awhile to discuss the new project.
She stopped by briefly to discuss the new project.
For a short time He visited awhile before heading to his next appointment.
He visited for a short time before heading to his next appointment.
Momentarily She stepped outside awhile to catch a breath of fresh air.
She stepped outside momentarily to catch a breath of fresh air.
Temporarily He lived in New York awhile before moving to California.
He lived in New York temporarily before moving to California.

Using the word “a while”

The phrase “a while” serves to denote an unspecified span of time. It stands as a noun phrase, often ushered in with prepositions to elucidate the temporal scenario at hand. Though it may seem straightforward, the usage of “a while” typically intersects with its adverbial cousin “awhile,” leading to a common area of confusion.

“A while” as a noun phrase

“A while” is a noun phrase embodying a vague span of time. Unlike “awhile,” it requires a preposition to fit within the grammatical structure of a sentence, often providing a sense of duration to the actions described.

Examples

  • I haven’t seen them in a while.
  • She read a book for a while before going to sleep.
  • It took a while for the flowers to bloom.

Tip for using “a while” correctly

Integrating alternative terms for “a while” can enhance your writing, minimize redundancy, and articulate your thoughts with more finesse. Here are four synonyms for “a while” along with illustrative sentences.

Synonyms Examples
For a bit Let's rest for a while before we continue our hike.
Let's rest for a bit before we continue our hike.
For a moment She paused for a while to catch her breath.
She paused for a moment to catch her breath.
For a short time She visited her hometown for a while during the summer.
She visited her hometown for a short time during the summer.
For a spell He lived in the city for a while before moving to the countryside.
He lived in the city for a spell before moving to the countryside.

Test yourself!

Practice sheet

To bolster your understanding of the distinction between the terms “awhile” and “a while,” kindly fill in the blank spaces in the ten sentences provided below. Following this, you may proceed to the second tab to review the correct answers and verify your comprehension.

  1. We decided to rest _____ before continuing our journey.
  2. It’s been _____ since we last caught up.
  3. Can you wait _____ until the manager is free?
  4. He read the newspaper _____ and then went for a walk.
  5. I haven’t been to the theatre in _____.
  6. She stayed _____ to watch the sunset.
  7. They’ve been living here for _____ now.
  8. The children played _____ before dinner.
  9. It took him _____ to complete the assignment.
  10. Let’s pause _____ and then we’ll discuss the next steps.
  1. We decided to rest awhile before continuing our journey.
  2. It’s been a while since we last caught up.
  3. Can you wait a while until the manager is free?
  4. He read the newspaper for a while and then went for a walk.
  5. I haven’t been to the theatre in a while.
  6. She stayed awhile to watch the sunset.
  7. They’ve been living here for a while now.
  8. The children played a while before dinner.
  9. It took him a while to complete the assignment.
  10. Let’s pause awhile and then we’ll discuss the next steps
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FAQs

“Awhile” is an adverb that modifies a verb and indicates a short-duration

  • We can linger awhile after dinner.

“A while” is a noun phrase that is often followed by a preposition like “for” or “in” and indicates an unspecified length of time.

  • I haven’t seen them for a while.

The correct phrase is “been a while.” The phrase “a while” is a noun phrase that is often used with prepositions or verbs to indicate a length of time. “Awhile” is an adverb, which means it modifies verbs, but it doesn’t fit grammatically in this phrase.

An exemplary sentence demonstrating the usage of “awhile” follows.

  • He pondered awhile over the question.

The term “awhile” refers to a short, unspecified period of time. The exact length of time it represents is vague and often depends on the context in which it is used. It’s generally understood to mean a duration that is neither very short nor very long. It can range from a few minutes to an hour or more depending on the situation. For example, resting awhile might mean taking a 10-15 minute break, while reading awhile might span 30 minutes to an hour.

Use “a while” when referring to an unspecified period of time, often following prepositions like “for” or “in.”

  • It’s been a while since we met.
  • Wait for a while.