awhile-vs-a-while_blog

This week’s post was inspired by a question we received from one of our Instagram followers. A friend of this follower wanted to get a tattoo that said the following: “A daughter holds your hand for awhile but your heart forever.”

Our follower thought the tattoo should say “a while” (two words) instead of “awhile” (one word) but wasn’t 100% sure. The follower asked “Which is correct: awhile or a while? Or are they both acceptable?” After all, friends don’t let friends get grammar errors tattooed onto them.

So do “awhile” vs. “a while” mean different things or are they just two ways of writing the same word? If you guessed the former (that they mean different things), you’d be correct (kudos!).

Now, if you’re reading this and feeling embarrassed that you didn’t even know that “a while” was a word, stop those feelings right in their tracks. Mixing up “awhile” and “a while” or not knowing that they’re two different words is a common mistake. After all, the only difference between them is a space between the first and second letter.

That’s why we’re using this post to set the record straight about the difference between “a while” and “awhile.” This way, you’ll never have to feel embarrassed or confused again when you need to choose which one to use in a sentence. And you won’t run the risk of inking the wrong word onto your skin, trade show banner, or promotional materials.

“A while”

Let’s start with “a while” (two words) because it’s probably the one you end up using more often.  “A while” is the combination of an article (“a”) and a noun (“while”) in the same way that “a year” or “an hour” are combinations of an article and a noun. “A while” essentially means “some time” and we use it in sentences like these:

  • “We’ve been waiting for the client’s feedback for a while.”
  • “It’s taking a while for the production company to edit our new social media video.”
  • “It’s been a while since Candace wrote a blog post.”

In each of these sentences, you can replace “a while” with “some time” and the sentence will still make sense:

  • “We’ve been waiting for the client’s feedback for some time.”
  • “It’s taking some time for the production company to edit our new social media video.”
  • “It’s been some time since Candace wrote a blog post.”

You can also replace “a while” with a specific length of time:

  • “We’ve been waiting for the client’s feedback for six weeks.”
  • “It’s taking four months for the production company to edit our new social media video.”
  • “It’s been a year since Candace wrote a blog post.”

“Awhile”

In comparison, we use “awhile” (one word) when we want to say “for some time.” It’s an adverb because we use it to describe how long someone has been performing an action for. For example, we use “awhile” in sentences like these:

  • “We waited awhile for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working awhile.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked awhile on the phone.”

In each of these sentences, “awhile” describes something about the main action of the sentence – “waited,” “working,” or “talked.”

Because “awhile” means “for some time,” you can replace “awhile” with “for some time” and the sentence will still make sense:

  • “We waited for some time for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for some time.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for some time on the phone.”

You can also replace “a while” with “for” + a specific length of time:

  • “We waited for eight days for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for seven hours.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for 90 minutes on the phone.”

“For a while”

Did you notice how “a while” means “some time” whereas “awhile” means “for some time”? This means that if you can take a sentence that needs “awhile” (one word) and add “for” in the right spot, you’ll need to use “a while” (two words) instead. Of course – the difference between “a while” and “awhile” couldn’t be straightforward, could it?

What are some examples of sentences that you can rephrase to swap “a while” with “awhile”? Let’s take a look at the original “awhile” example sentences:

  • “We waited awhile for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working awhile.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked awhile on the phone.”

If we add “for” right before “awhile”, we get these sentences:

  • “We waited for awhile for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for awhile.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for awhile on the phone.”

However, “awhile” (one word) means “for some time,” so these sentences mean this:

  • “We waited for for some time for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for for some time.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for for some time on the phone.”

Notice how something isn’t right in these sentences? “For” shows up twice! Why? Because “awhile” already includes the word “for.”

On the other hand, “a while” (two words) doesn’t include the word “for.” So when we already have “for” in the sentence, we need to use “a while”:

  • “We waited for a while for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for a while.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for a while on the phone.”

As a check, we can replace “a while” with its meaning (“some time”) and the sentences will make sense:

  • “We waited for some time for the client’s feedback.”
  • “They’ve been working for some time.”
  • “The customer and sales manager talked for some time on the phone.”

Summary

The difference between “a while” and “awhile” may seem a bit complicated because we can use either one in a sentence depending on the structure of the sentence. However, if you ever get stuck when trying to figure out which one you need to use, replace the word with both “some time” and “for some time” and see which one lets the sentence make sense. If “some time” fits, you need to use “a while.” If “for some time” fits, “awhile” is the word you’re looking for.
—————————————————————————————————————————————–
Want to know the difference between other commonly misused words? Check out our post on the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.”
—————————————————————————————————————————————–



Save

“Awhile” vs. “a while”: What’s the difference?
Tagged on:                                                             

4 thoughts on ““Awhile” vs. “a while”: What’s the difference?

  • January 29, 2017 at 2:53 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you for this comprehensive and clear explanation of the differences between these pesky terms. I believe there might be an error in the paragraph just above the Summary.

    “As a check, we can replace “a while” with its meaning (“for some time”) and the sentences will make sense:
    “We waited for some time for the client’s feedback.”
    . . .”

    Should it not read (removing the preposition ‘for’ from the parenthetical):
    “As a check, we can replace “a while” with its meaning (“some time”) and the sentences will make sense:
    . . .”

    My apology if I’m wrong, but I’ve been studying this for a half hour and am confused.

    Reply
    • January 29, 2017 at 6:09 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right – “for” shouldn’t appear in the parentheses. These two words are so similar that it’s hard to keep them straight when you’re constantly referring to them in a post! 🙂

      We’ve corrected the sentence now.

      Reply
  • Pingback:What does “irregardless” mean? – Inpression Editing Blog

  • Pingback:“To hone” vs. “to home”: What’s the difference? – Inpression Editing Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.