Which Word Wednesday: Awhile vs. A While

By August 24, 2011 language No Comments

In our society, choices abound. We can choose from 10 kinds of cheddar cheese and 85,000 different coffee combinations from Starbucks (supposedly). We want things made-to-order and made-for-me. It’s the American way.

But what happens when that mentality is applied to language? That’s when we get American English.

Take this choice between awhile (one word) and a while (two words). I thought you could just pick your favorite. Who knew there was a difference between them and a reason for choosing the one-word variety over the two?

Well, namely Mark Davidson. He knew, and he tells us in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage that “a while is a noun phrase meaning ‘a period of time.’ Awhile is an adverb meaning ‘for a period of time.’ ”1 All this matches the definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

awhile :: adverb
for a short time

a while :: noun phrase (article + noun)
a period of time

How do we use them properly? Davidson gives us this tip:

Use only the two-word form when it’s preceded by a preposition, as with “in a while” or “for a while.”

Note that you can stay for a while (a period of time) or you can stay awhile (for a period of time). But you cannot stay for awhile, because that would mean you are redundantly staying for “for a period of time.”

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What’s my WWW verdict? We get lots of choices as American citizens. We even get to choose to use our language correctly! Let’s use our freedom to the fullest.

What’s your verdict? Do you get stuck on the difference between a while and awhile? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 99.

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