What’s the difference between a while, awhile and while?
Here’s another tricky grammar point; these words and phrases sound identical and have very similar meanings. Use them in the wrong place however and you can lose points in an exam!
Luckily, there is an easy way to tell them apart if you look carefully at the grammatical structure of these two phrases. Let’s take a closer look at some examples:
A) Awhile: Adverb. A short period or of time. “Why don’t you go play awhile.”
‘Awhile’ is an adverb that attaches directly on to a verb (in this case, the verb ‘play’). It specifically means a short period of time.
B) A while: noun ph. An interval of time. “I’m going to wait here for a while”
C) While: conjunction. During a given time. “You wait here while I get the car”
‘While’ is a noun phrase and means, very literally, ‘a period of time’. It is most commonly seen with the article ‘a’ to create ‘a while’. Whenever you see ‘a while’ it will be used within an adjectival prepositional phrase and will come after a preposition such as “in, for, after” etc.
‘While’ can also be used as a conjunction which implies that two events will happen at the same time.
How to remember them:
Remembering these two different forms is easy; simply look to see whether the word follows a preposition or a verb. If the word follows a verb its ‘awhile’, if it follows a preposition it’s ‘a while’ – so keep an eye out for those prepositions!
A little history…
The word ‘a while’ came the Old English word ane hwile, which was often seen written together as one word. Over time, the word became recognized as having two different usages – as a preposition and as an adverb – and the written formed developed an extra space.
Look out also for the word ‘whilst’. This is a UK English version of the conjunctive meaning of the word ‘while’ – it's super fun to say!
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