Awhile vs. A While: What's the Difference?

Grammar Rules updated on  June 5, 2023 3 min read

The difference between awhile and a while is that awhile is an adverb and tells how long an action is performed for (for a while), and a while is a noun representing the length of time itself.

Awhile is not just the one-word version of a while.

Homophones like these are plentiful in the English language. Unlike some other homophones, such as apart and a part, this pair has very similar meanings. Let’s look at how you can understand the difference.

Awhile meaning

Awhile is an adverb, so it describes how a verb is done (or, more specifically, the period of time the verb is being performed for). Let's look at how you can use awhile correctly in a sentence.

awhile (adv): for some time

We decided to stay awhile after having coffee at a friend’s house.

After the song ended, it kept playing in my head awhile.

I don’t mind waiting awhile for Sam to finish up so she can join us.

"Wait awhile before taking another aspirin," my mom told me.

A while meaning

A while is a noun phrase, which just means it's made up of two words that combine to make a single noun (a + while). Let's look at examples of a while used in sentences.

a while (n): a period of time

It’s been a while since I’ve had curry for lunch.

Can you stay for a while? I would love to hear more about your trip.

I tried to start exercising a while ago, but I never could seem to stick with it.

It took me a while to understand noun phrases in English class.

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When to use awhile and when to use a while

The difference between these two terms is clearer in their parts of speech than it is in their meanings—one word (ahwile) is an adverb, and the other word (a while) is a noun.

Since the strict definitions of the two words don’t seem very different, people often use them interchangeably. And that usage is leading to their evolution—soon, the difference between them may not exist at all.

Since both awhile and a while are casual words/phrases, they’re usually not suitable for formal writing. In an essay or other academic writing project, it’s much better to give a specific, measurable time period. For other writing projects, we suggest the rules below:

The strict rule is to use awhile only when you’re describing how long something is done (when you can replace it with for a time) and use a while only when you’re talking about a time period (when you can replace it with an amount of time).

However, this rule, like every other language rule, has valid exceptions. For example, you could say, “Can you stay 20 minutes?” and it would be grammatically correct although awhile is the “right” usage here.

The relaxed rule is to use whichever one you think sounds best. Most people will understand your meaning and probably won’t argue with you about it, especially since you’re not writing in a formal setting.Regardless of the type of writing you’re doing, QuillBot can help you pick the best words and phrases to convey your meaning. And you won’t have to wait a while for the results—simply type or paste your text into the editing box, and our AI will suggest ways to improve your spelling, punctuation, and fluency instantly!

Is it awhile ago or a while ago?

Strictly speaking, the correct phrase is a while ago since awhile is an adverb. But you can use either one and be easily understood.

Is “awhile” short or long?

Awhile is used casually rather than formally and can refer to a long time period or a short one, depending on the context. For instance, you might say, “Let’s sit awhile,” which can mean you’d like to sit for a short time, like 30 minutes, or a comparatively long time, like a few hours. Or you could say, “We’ve been married awhile,” which usually means you’ve been married a long time.

What does quite a while mean?

Quite a while is an idiom that means “a relatively long time.”


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Paige Pfeifer

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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