Grammar Rules You Never Knew: A while v. Awhile

Oct 8, 2014

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Grammar Rules You Never Knew A while v. Awhile

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I pride myself on the superior hold I have on grammar. Nary will you see the wrong “their,” “too” or “its” in my blog posts. I find myself scanning documents, proposals and blogs for errant comma splices. I was a big proponent for the Oxford Comma before entering the world of public relations and succumbing to public pressure. And, I use semicolons with abandon; see how effortless that was?

But never, ever had I considered the difference between “a while” and “awhile.”

How has this slipped my notice? Have I been using the wrong “awhile” my whole life? Even more disconcertingly…what other grammar flops have I been inadvertently making?

I will struggle through my identity crisis at a later point. Right now, though, let’s just wade through the confusion. In case you, too, have been tripped up by “a while” and “awhile,” stick with me for the differences.

Grammar Rules You Never Knew

Photo Credit: the Italian voice via Compfight cc

Grammar Rules You Never Knew: A while v. Awhile

First for the commonality: Both words refer to an expression of time. Both have been in use in language for over one hundred years. The key difference? “A while” is a noun phrase, while “awhile” is an adverb.

Some definitions:

  • A while: a period or interval of time
  • Awhile: for a short time or period

Let’s unpack it a little more, in case the definitions didn’t quite do it for you, as was the case for me.

“A while” often follows a preposition like “for” or “in.” For example: We’re going to go visit my grandparents for a while. I might start watching TV in awhile

“Awhile” can’t follow a preposition. I’ve found this rule to be the most helpful in discerning the right “a while.” Does the sentence have a preposition? Yes? Then your answer is “a while.”

If the answer is “no,” try inserting the definition for “awhile” into your sentence – does “for a short time” make sense in the sentence? If yes, you have your answer. Read this example: They’re going to the mall awhile. They’re going to the mall for a short time. Those both make sense, don’t they?

I haven’t had a whole lot of time to try out these tips since discovering the difference between these two words, but my guess is that we use “a while” more often in daily life. Have you noticed that for yourself? Let me know in the comments below!

We’ll be back with more PR talk for you in a while….