on Writing & Publishing

Awhile vs A While

Today while writing an email, I used the word "awhile" and then realized I wasn't sure if I should be using "awhile" or "a while". So, as I always do, I quickly looked up the definition for "awhile" in the dictionary on my Mac (which, using Quicksilver, is as easy as Cmd+Space -> "dic" -> Enter). I was very surprised to see this definition:

awhile: for a short time

I've always thought, and used, both "awhile" and "a while" to mean a period of time longer than a short time. So then I checked Google's definitions:

awhile: for a short time
a while: a period of indeterminate length (usually short)

Wow, still very confusing! I dug a little further on Google, searching for a good rule that would help me remember which to use while writing. I think I finally found one:

awhile always means "for a while"
a while usually means "for a length of time", and is sometimes accompanied by a preposition, such as "I left work a while ago". You can also add adjectives to further describe the amount of time implied, such as "Its been a long while" or "Please wait for a short while".

Now whenever I need to determine if using "awhile" makes sense, I can simply replace it with "for a while" and see if the sentence still sounds right. For example, "I left work awhile ago" would mean "I left work for a while ago", which is of course wrong. I use a similar rule to remember when to use "it's" and "its"; the former always translates into "it is".

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    • I have no doubt you could have! It actually only took me about 15 seconds to figure it out, but then I spent some time writing this post. I write posts like this to help others who might be searching for the same answer.

      Besides, for me, it’s all about the search, the hunt, or the journey, no matter how small. 🙂

  1. It’s funny but some times such trivial things happen because “awhile” ago (tell me it’s right. *LOL*) it happened to me. And so I searched the web and bingo! another one who had the same dilemma like mine. Thanks.

    • Hey Cris!

      That’s the beauty of the web! 🙂 Being able to help each other out without even knowing each other existed! 😀

  2. In south-central PA (where everything is influenced by Pennsylvania Dutch culture), you get an additional, dialectal definition of “awhile”…and most of us don’t even know that it’s exclusive to our area! We often mean “awhile” as synonymous to “meanwhile” or “in the meantime.” For example, a waitress taking orders of beverages might say: “Can I get your drinks awhile?” — that is, can she get your drinks in the meantime, before she takes your orders for food? I think I just realized how we may have gotten this definition: from the phrase “to wait a while.” You see, when you’re waiting AWHILE / A WHILE (for a while) for something, you’re incidentally waiting AWHILE (meanwhile, as we mean it). My hypothesis is that our locals’ ancestors focused instead on the second phenomenon happening as people “wait awhile,” made that the primary meaning of “awhile,” and used it in combination with any verb that could fit the context.

    • Fascinating! Thanks for sharing that, Ryan. It’s really amazing how much a language can change from one region to another. Awhile back, I was listening to NPR and I heard that within the Boston area (where I grew up) there are dozens of different dialects. You can sometimes tell which region of Boston someone is from just based on how they talk. That’s just one city!

      • Your use of “awhile back” in the August 24 comment is confusing me. It doesn’t seem to fit your explanation. Is it a mistake, or am I missing something? “A while back” seems like an actual period of time instead of an adverb (like “six years back”), and it seems just like the use of “a while ago.” Please help me to understand why you chose “awhile back,” and thanks for your help.

        • Haha, thanks for pointing that out, Brian! You are absolutely correct: I should have said “A while back, I was listening to NPR…”. 🙂

          (Normally I’d correct such a mistake after someone points it out to me, but I’m going to leave the mistake there for anyone else who reads this comment thread, so that these following comments actually make sense!)