Awhile vs A While: What’s the Difference?

Many people don’t know whether to choose awhile vs a while, so this guide will cover the difference and show how to pick between them.

I often find it hard to know the correct word or phrase to use in the English language. Some are more difficult than others when they’re commonly confused within culture. One instance I’ve struggled with is when to use “awhile” or “a while.”

Have you had the same confusion? Not to worry, because this guide is here to display the difference when you’re faced with the decision between awhile vs a while. Since each one can be correct when used in the right instances, I’ll show you the appropriate times to use each version.

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Commonly Confused Words

When to use awhile vs a while

“Awhile” and “a while” sound the same and both refer to time, which is why it makes sense that people would confuse them. Yet they differ in meaning and how they’re used. That’s why it wouldn’t be grammatically correct to use them interchangeably.

A While vs Awhile Definition

Awhile vs A while
“Awhile” and “a while” sound the same and both refer to time

Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that the word “while” means a period of time. It doesn’t refer to a specific amount of time, but the word usually refers to a short time span and one connected to an action or a certain condition. 

When you add “a” in front of “while,” you make the noun phrase “a while.” So you might say something like “I’ll see you in a while” or “I’ll finish that in a while” to reference a period of time.

“Awhile” is different because it’s an adverb of time and place. It refers to time in particular. The American Heritage Dictionary gives “for a short time” as a definition of “awhile.”

What Is the Difference Between A While and Awhile?

I realize that the definitions don't make the distinction abundantly clear. But the difference between the definitions is that “awhile” refers to a subjective length of time and “a while” refers to a comparative length of time.

I’ll attempt to make the distinction clearer by discussing the length of time. “Awhile” generally means the action attached to it will happen soon, while “a while” references a longer period of time.

Also, it’s correct to use “a while” when talking about frequency, and it can become a synonym for words and phrases such as “occasionally,” “sometimes” or “every so often.” On the other hand, “awhile” cannot be used in this way, but it can be a synonym for phrases such as “for a little while” or “for a moment.”

Is A While A Prepositional Phrase Or An Adverbial Phrase?

“A while” can become part of adverbial phrases like “in a while” by adding words, but by itself it remains a noun phrase. You could also make it part of an expanded noun phrase by adding an adjective to the noun, such as “a while longer,” or part of an adverbial phrase, such as “just a little while.”

Can “awhile” be used as the object of a preposition? No, but this is what happens when you add “a while” to a prepositional phrase. “A while” continues to be a noun phrase, but you can use it within a prepositional phrase, such as “for a while,” where it becomes the object of the preposition.

American Heritage Dictionary makes the distinction that noun phrases are the only thing that can become objects of prepositions. This clarifies that when you’re aiming to use English grammar correctly you can use “a while” with a prepositional phrase but not “awhile.”

Final Word on Awhile vs A While

“Awhile” and “a while” are similar because they sound alike and both refer to time. However, they differ in more ways than that “awhile” is the one-word version and “a while” is a two-word expression. 

“Awhile” is an adverb of time and “a while” is a noun phrase. Also, they have different meanings, as “awhile” is likened to a short period of time and “a while” would be longer. Finally, you can use “a while” but not “awhile” as the object of a preposition.

FAQs About Awhile vs A While 

What is an adverb of place?

You may hear about adverbs of place and time. They’re pretty clear if you go by the names, as adverbs of place follow a verb or clause to describe where an action takes place, and adverbs of time such as “awhile” describe when the action happens.

Why do we use “a while” instead of “awhile”?

The most important grammar rules to remember are to use “a while” with a preposition or when you’re saying “a while ago” or “a while back.” Otherwise, you would use “awhile” to modify a verb. These are the most definitive grammar rules while other ideas on the subject may be looser.  

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