Awhile vs. a while?

A while” is a noun phrase that means “occasionally” or an amount of time that is longer than “awhile.” The adverb awhile is synonymous with “momentarily” and short for the prepositional phrase “for a while.” Both terms use the word “while,” which means “a period of time.”

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What is the difference between awhile vs. a while?

Awhile” and “a while” are confusing words to learn for many reasons. To start, they’re pronounced the same and describe the concept of time, but they’re also spelled differently and serve separate grammatical functions. In addition, we can break down how “awhile” and “a while” convey time in terms of duration vs. frequency. 

Awhile” and “a while” have different grammar rules

The biggest reason we struggle with “awhile” and “a while” is because they each use the noun “while,” meaning “a period of time.” Where “awhile” and “a while” diverge from “while” how they behave as a phrase within other phrases. The noun phrase “a while” means “once in a while,” but we can also use the adverb awhile as a concise replacement for “for a while” or “in a short time.” 

But, of course, the English Language is not that simple, and several grammar rules that prevent us from using awhile instead of “for a while” every time. We typically write “a while” after prepositions and the word awhile after a verb. If the preposition occurs after a verb, then we can replace the entire prepositional noun phrase with “awhile.” And, in case you’re wondering, The Associated Press Stylebook, a media writing style guide, agrees with these rules, too (“awhile”). 

Speaking of prepositional phrases, people often wonder if “a while” is a prepositional or adverbial phrase. In short, the answer is no. However, the noun phrase “a while” does exist within prepositional phrases and can act as a transitional phrase at the beginning of sentences. 

Likewise, the noun phrase “a while” is incorporated into several adverbial phrases like “a while longer,” but it is not an adverbial phrase in itself. The important thing to remember is that while we can use these terms within prepositional and adverbial phrases, “a while” always remains a noun phrase. 

Awhile” and “a while” sound the same

There are other word dichotomies in the English Language that are equally as confusing, such as “a lot vs. alot.” Like most confused words, “awhile vs. a while” are homophonic. A homophone is a set of words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently and used for different parts of speech. 

Awhile and a while are not traditional homophones because awhile is an adverb, and “a while” is a noun phrase. What this means is that we can write awhile and “a while” as though they are one word, but only within a sentence. “A while” is not a word in itself. 

Awhile” vs. “a while” as a duration of time

A different way to understand awhile vs. a while is that either word or phrase inherently represents a duration of time. We use the adverb awhile to say “for a short time,” but it’s not the same as “a while,” which meansa period of time.” In this sense, we can differentiate either expression by a subjective or comparative time length.

Awhile and a while borrow the noun “while,” which means “a length of time.” Awhile and “a while” are words in their own right, but “a while” is less of a word in practice and more of a noun phrase. The noun phrase is tricky because it allows us to reference something that’s occuring now and extending into the future, or for a shorter, indefinite amount of time. 

For example, here are a few expressions that use the phrase “a while” to convey different amounts of time. 

  • Quite a while” = a long time
  • A while ago” = a long time ago (in the past tense)
  • For a while” = for a long duration
  • In a while” = sooner than later 

Where we can draw the line between awhile vs. a while in terms of time, is that a while functions to convey a duration that is longer than awhile. The word awhile is similar to the term momentarily, which also mean means “for a short time” and “very soon.” Therefore, we can conclude that awhile indicates “soon” and “a while” conveys “longer.” 

Awhile” vs. “a while” in terms of frequency

The other way to understand the difference between awhile vs. a while involves their ability to describe frequency. Unlike the phrase “a while,” we cannot use the adverb awhile to convey how often something occurs. 

For example, we can use the noun phrase “a while” in place of the words sometimes, occasionally, or intermittently. In this sense, the two-word expression “a while” is synonymous with phrases like: 

  • Here and there
  • Now and then
  • Every so often
  • From time to time
  • Off and on 

In contrast, we use the single-word “awhile” in place of phrases such as: 

  • For a moment
  • For a while
  • For a short time
  • For a little while

What does awhile mean?

The term awhile is an adverb meaning “for a while,” which represents an indefinite time duration that ends eventually. Awhile additionally conveys the expression “in a short time,” which is synonymous with the word momentarily. In this sense, awhile and momentarily mean “very soon” or “shortly.”

The one-word version of the adverb awhile predates 12th century Middle English, although a two-word version existed as āne hwīle for Old English to mean “one while” or “for a while” (for a long time). 

Synonyms of awhile

Briefly, jiffy, moment, momentarily, shortly, soon. 

Antonyms of awhile

Later.

What does a while mean?

A while” is defined within the phrase “once in a while” to mean “on some occasions.” In addition, we can also use the phrase “a while” for a present duration of time that eventually ends. 

Synonyms of a while

Now, occasionally, periodically, recurrently, sometimes.

Antonyms of a while

Always, consistently, continually, frequently, often, regularly, routinely, usually.

How to use awhile in a sentence?

The word awhile is an adverb, meaning it’s a part of speech that modifies other verbs. Other examples of adverbs include words like “rarely,” “nearby,” or “fast.” We use adverbs to answer questions like:

  • When?
  • Where?
  • How?
  • How much?
  • How often? 

For awhile, we specifically answer: “for how long?” or “how much longer?” because it’s a concise way of saying “for a while.” 

For example,

Question: “How long will the WordPress site last before an update?” 
Answer: “Wordpress updates last awhile before they need to be updated.” 

Perhaps this is where many grammar students struggle to differentiate awhile from “a while,” but it’s important to remember English grammar rules for adverbs. 

Adverb grammar rules:

  1. Adverbs answer questions like when, where, how, or why
  2. Adverbs describe other adverbs, verbs, and adjectives.
  3. Adverbs do not follow a noun in a sentence.
  4. Adverbs follow a verb in a sentence.
  5. We can use an adverb in front of an adjective or another adverb. 

Let’s take a look at a few example sentences using the adverb awhile correctly:

Example 1: “The winter seasons last awhile.” 

The first example uses awhile correctly because it answers the question “how long?” and the adverb occurs after the infinitive verb “to last,” which it describes.   

Example 2:We are staying awhile before going home.”

The second example also uses awhile correctly because the adverb occurs after a verb and before a different adverb, “before.”

How to use a while in a sentence?

A while” is a noun phrase because it features the article “a” followed by the noun form of “while.” The use of an article within “a while” is important for sentence structure and context because the noun phrase represents an unspecific amount of time. To use “a while” as a noun phrase, we have to consider grammar rules for articles and nouns alike. 

Article grammar rules:

  1. All articles within English grammar are either definite or indefinite. For example, “the” is a definite article because it refers to specific nouns (e.g., the day, the year). 
  2. Articles such as “a” or “an” are called indefinite articles because they modify and reference non-specific nouns (e.g., an hour, a minute).  
  3. We use articles like adjectives to modify or describe nouns. 
  4. Indefinite articles do not proceed non-count nouns, which are words that represent an uncountable amount of nouns. 

Noun phrase grammar rules:

  1. A noun phrase functions as one noun.
  2. Noun phrases consist of an article and a noun.
  3. If one or more adjectives occur before or after the noun, the phrase is called an “expanded noun phrase.” 
  4. An adjective, verb, or conjunction can proceed or follow a noun phrase. 

Final grammar rules for using “a while” in a sentence:

With the article and noun phrase rules in mind, we can outline the following recommendations for using “a while” in a sentence:

  1. Because “a while” functions as one noun, it may follow a preposition despite the article “a.” For example, “We stayed for a while.” 
  2. Since indefinite articles cannot proceed non-count nouns, the “while” of “a while” is a singular noun.
  3. A while” must refer to an unspecific amount of time. 
  4. The phrase can precede or follow an adjective, conjunction, or verb. 
  5. A while” can precede adverbs such as “ago” and “back” to indicate tense.

Here are a few example sentences that use the noun phrase “a while” correctly: 

Example 1: “Students read the Grammar Girl blog for a while.” 

The first example features “a while” correctly because it follows the preposition “for,” and it represents a singular, unspecified amount of time. 

Example 2: “They studied biology a while back.”

The second example uses “a while” correctly because it occurs after a preposition, which allows the article “a” to describe the singular noun. Also, the phrase is followed by an adverb to modify the verb “studied.”

Usage notes on awhile vs. a while

Many grammar students ask if “awhile” or “a while” are adverbial or prepositional phrases. In short, the answer is no, but it’s also complicated. 

Is “a while” an adverbial phrase?

An adverbial phrase functions as a singular adverb, just like a noun phrase operates as a singular noun. For an adverbial phrase to exist, it must begin with an adverb such as “in,” “when,” or “just.” In this sense, the noun phrase “a while” can be part of an adverbial expression, but this doesn’t make “a while” an adverbial phrase. For example, “in a while” and “just a while” are adverbial phrases, but “a while” is still a noun phrase.  

Adverbial phrases also apply to expanded noun phrases, which are phrases that include an adjective before or after the noun. “A bit while” and “a while longer” are expanded noun phrase versions of “a while.” From this, we can use this expanded phrase as an adverbial phrase with “just a bit while.” 

Is “a while” a prepositional phrase?

The noun phrase “a while” can join a prepositional phrase and even act as a transitional phrase, but the noun phrase does not inherently change to something else.  Furthermore, “a while” can only join a prepositional phrase if it acts as the object of a preposition.

A prepositional phrase is part of a sentence that connects a preposition to a noun, pronoun, or a verb to a different descriptive or modifying term. By definition, a preposition connects nouns and pronouns to other words in a sentence. Examples of prepositions include about, by, in, on, under, or with

How we pair prepositions with other words indicates their topic. For instance, the prepositions at, in, and on tend to indicate time. But since they refer to specific times, they are paired with the definite article “the” instead of “a.” By this standard, the noun phrase “a while” shouldn’t work with a preposition, but since it acts as a singular noun, there are exceptions to this rule. 

For example, we can use the preposition “for” in front of “a while” to make a prepositional phrase. Like an adverbial phrase, “a while” is simply used within the prepositional phrase, and is still considered a noun phrase. 

Grammar rules for “a while” in prepositional phrases:

To use “a while” within a prepositional phrase, it needs to be the object of a prepositional phrase. There are also a few grammar rules to consider:

  • Prepositional phrases describe a subject’s spatial awareness, provide context, or introduce concepts. 
  • Prepositions typically follow a verb (e.g., “ran with,” “yelled at,” or “wait for”). 
  • Prepositions belong at the beginning of a prepositional phrase.
  • All prepositional phrases end with a noun or pronoun.
  • The phrase must describe other words in the sentence as a whole. 

There are times we can use “a while” similarily to prepositional phrases like “according to,” “because of,” or “with the exception of.” For example,

A while later, I found Johnny in the automotive aisle.” 

However, since “a while later” doesn’t include a preposition, the phrase not a prepositional phrase. And in case you’re wondering, we cannot use “later” adverbially either. The sentence is grammatically correct because it acts as a transitional phrase, and the determiner “a” acts as an adjective. 

FAQ: Related to awhile vs. a while

Is it stay awhile or stay a while?

When it comes to writing “stay awhile” or “stay a while,” the correct word to use is awhile because it occurs after a verb. If a “preposition like “for” occurs before the article “a,” then us “a while.” 

Is it once and awhile or in a while?

The phrase “once and awhile” is incorrect because awhile is an adverb, which means it should describe and follow a verb. Therefore, the correct phrase is “once in a while.” 

What about writing long while vs. long time?

The phrase “a long while” means “a long period of time,” and so the phrase “a long time” means the same thing. 

Is after an adverb?

The word after is an adverb, preposition, conjunction, adjective, noun, and more. We write “after” adverbially to describe when something occurred or how it followed a different action. For example, “We ate after…” 

Are there other word issues related to awhile vs. a while?

If you’re looking for more commonly confused words, The Word Counter features related posts such as:

Test Yourself!

Learning English grammar requires a lot of practice. Test how much you’ve learned about awhile vs. a while with the following questions.

  1. Which of the following words is strictly defined as a “period of time”
    1. Awhile
    2. A while
    3. While
    4. All of the above
  2. The phrase “for a while” is an example of what?
    1. Noun phrase
    2. Prepositional phrase
    3. Adverbial phrase
    4. A and B
  3. Which is best to use when describing “a short time” in contrast to “a long time”
    1. Awhile
    2. While
    3. A while
    4. B and C
  4. Which of the following is synonymous with “a while”? 
    1. Now and then
    2. Off and on
    3. For a moment
    4. A and B
  5. The phrase “just a bit while” is an example of what?
    1. Expanded noun phrase
    2. Noun phrase
    3. Prepositional phrase
    4. Adverbial phrase

Answers

  1. C
  2. B
  3. A
  4. D
  5. D

Sources

  1. Awhile.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  2. Awhile.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  3. Awhile.” Lexico Thesaurus, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  4. “Awhile.” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2017, Basic Books, Associated Press, 2017.
  5. Momentarily.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  6. Once in a while.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  7. Prepositional Phrases.” Writing for Success Handbook, Piedmont Virginia Community College, n.d. 
  8. Using Articles.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2020. 
  9. While.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  10. Prepositions.” Writing for Success, Saylor Academy, 2012. 
  11. Using Articles and Prepositions.” The Writing Center, USC Donrsife, n.d.
  12. Parts of Speech.” College of Southern Idaho, n.d.