A While or Awhile?

Should you use ‘a while’ or ‘awhile’? Yes, the two look alike and have nearly the same definition, but they aren’t interchangeable.

Many, many years ago, my dad built a wooden coat rack with the words “Stay awhile” cut out in individual wooden letters and mounted across the top.

When I was a kid, I’d look at the coat rack and I’d think there should be a space between the A and the while. I wasn’t certain that this alternate version was officially a word.

But I was wrong.

A While or Awhile?

The phrase a while is a noun phrase. The noun while means “a period of time:”

Fred said he would call back in a while.

Susan said she would be on vacation for a while.

You’ll note that in both examples, a while follows a preposition. If a preposition is involved, you have to use the two-word version.

The word while by itself can be used as a conjunction to mean “during:”

Bill answered the phones while Annie greeted customers at the door.

Then, we have awhile, is an adverb, which means “for a while.”

Note that the difference in definitions between the two is that the one-word variety contains the word for. Yes, that’s a very minor difference, but it counts.

The easiest way to remember when you should use it is that it must modify a verb and cannot follow a preposition.

If my dad had cut out a few extra letters, the phrase would have had to be, “Stay for a while.” Because there was no preposition, and because the word could only modify the verb stay, the one-word version was the only one he could have used.

“Stay awhile” was correct after all.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.