Monday, September 13, 2010

A While vs. Awhile: Learn the Difference



Kim writes:
I think I spotted an error in the Harvard Gazette, of all places. Check out this headline. I always thought awhile was one word.

Thanks for sending this in, Kim! You're right. There is an error, but it's not what you're thinking. There is awhile, and there is also a while. Their meanings are so close that many people use them interchangeably, but there is a difference between them. 

Where does the Harvard Gazette go wrong? It uses the noun, a while, instead of the adverb, awhile.

Quick rules:
  • A while is a noun meaning "a short spell." It has been a while since I met with Tom.
  • Awhile is an adverb meaning "for a short spell." Use it to modify verbs. Let's wait awhile. After school, I needed to sleep awhile.
  • When there is a preposition, use a while. (A noun can be the object of a preposition, but an adverb can't be.) Let's sit down and talk for a while. We spoke a while ago

Try this:
  • When in doubt, try replacing awhile with another adverb, such as "slowly" or "happily." If the substitute adverb sounds fine, then use awhile. If not, use a while.
    Let's wait quietly. (It works.) >> Let's wait awhile.
    Let's wait for quietly. (It doesn't work.) >> Let's wait for a while.

Correction:
  • Sit down, stay awhile
  • Sit down, stay for a while

15 comments:

  1. Excellent clarification! And yet in my opinion, the last example * and the example in the question can really go with either "a while" or "awhile." Obviously, "Sit down, stay awhile" and "Sit down, stay for a while" are both correct. The first tells us how to stay and uses an adverb. The second tells us the period of time to stay and uses a noun. But "Sit down, stay a while" can also be understood as telling us not how to stay but how long to stay for so a noun would also be correct. "Sit down, stay an hour" is fine just as "Sit down, stay for an hour" is also fine.

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    1. Will Mr or Miss Anonymous clarify how "sit down, stay an hour " is fine? Gee Martin.

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    2. And if not, must we also wait for a week, and walk for a mile, and sleep for the night?

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  2. What would it be for this one?

    It took me (a while or awhile)to tear off all that stubborn tape.

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    1. A while , because while here functions as a noun

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  3. I would use "It took me a while to tear off all that stubborn tape." The noun usage seems right in this case, just as you would say, "It took me an hour (a minute, etc.) to tear off..." because the "a while" modifies the vague pronoun of "it."
    But you could say, "I've been tearing off tape awhile," because the "awhile" then modifies the tearing (a verb).

    This is one of the foggier grammar scenarios, to be certain!

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  4. I picked up from this that, if you insert "for" in your sentence, it will clarify what you should use. My theory is, if you try to use the definition of a word in that word's place and it works, then it is correct. In the question above, "It took me "for a short spell" to tear off all that stubborn tape" doesn't make sense. "It took me "a short spell" to tear off all that stubborn tape" sounds better. "Awhile" is FOR a short spell and "a while" IS a short spell.

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  5. Here's an example of a clear difference between the adverb "awhile" and the noun phrase (not just a "noun") "a while":

    "Awhile ago, I went for a run." vs. ("For a while ago, I went for a run."--ungrammatical). "I ran for a little while." Of course, you can't say, "I ran for little awhile."

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  6. The headline is okay, because the preposition is optional in that construction. Consider "stay a day".
    See http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19980202

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  7. There's a new Android game out to challenge folks to learn the right spellings for words. It's called SPELLSHOCK'D. Check it out at:https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=sss.spellshockd

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  8. Should it be took me while to right this or took me a while? Thanks!!

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    1. You need to use "a while" because you can substitute a length of time: "It took me two minutes." "It took me over an hour." If you can't substitute an adverb (typically, a word ending in "ly,") you shouldn't use "awhile." You wouldn't say, "It took me quietly to write this," nor "It took me angrily to write this." You're not modifying/describing the verb "took." (The past tense of the verb "take.") Another indication that "awhile" isn't appropriate here is that you can't insert the word "for" before it. It would sound awkward and just plain wrong to say, "It took me for awhile to write this."

      Which brings me to the fact you used "right" instead of "write"--unless you meant, "It took me a while to correct this," as in, "It took me a while to right this wrong."

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    2. Oops. Ignore the section in my above comment that states, "you can't insert the word 'for' before it..." I reread that right after I published it and decided it didn't make any sense/wasn't a good example/made things more confusing/possibly wasn't accurate (lol,) but couldn't figure out how to edit it out. Sorry. Just disregard that part.

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  9. On another topic, Howard, a period always comes before the closing quotation mark.

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    1. Not in Australia it doesn't, and presumably there are other places that punctuate outside quotation marks. I don't know where Howard's from, but it rarely pays to be categorical about such things.

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