Awhile or A While | Difference & Example Sentences

Awhile and a while are pronounced similarly but have different grammatical roles and slightly distinct meanings.

  • Awhile (one word) is an adverb meaning ‘for a period of time’.
  • A while (two words) is a noun phrase meaning ‘a period of time’.
Examples: ‘Awhile’ in a sentence Examples: ‘A while’ in a sentence
After his run, Dane rested awhile. We’ll go to the park in a while.
Jodi studies awhile each evening. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Stephanie.
Note
Although awhile and a while are often used interchangeably in informal writing, (e.g., ‘stay awhile’/’stay a while’), many style guides, including AP style and Chicago style, encourage you to pay attention to the difference.

‘Awhile’ is an adverb

Awhile is an adverb that means ‘for a period of time’ or ‘for a while’. As an adverb, awhile always modifies a verb that precedes it in a sentence. It already includes the meaning of ‘for’, so you should not write ‘for awhile’.

Examples: ‘Awhile’ in a sentence
After his piano lesson, Will practised awhile.

Stay awhile and chat!

Tip
If you’re unsure whether you are using awhile correctly, try replacing it with the exact phrase ‘for a while’ or with the word ‘temporarily’. If it still makes sense, awhile is correct.

‘A while’ is a noun phrase

A while is a noun phrase (consisting of the indefinite article ‘a’ and the noun ‘while’) meaning ‘a period of time’. It’s often preceded by a preposition (e.g., ‘for’, ‘in’, ‘after’).

Examples: ‘A while’ in a sentence
You need to leave in a while if you want to catch your train.

Pam spent a while trying to decide on a gift for Liz.

As a noun phrase, a while can be modified by an adjective to qualify the unspecified period of time.

Examples: ‘A while’ modified by an adjective
Let’s go shopping in a little while.

I hope the band plays for a while longer.

Tip
If you’re unsure whether you are using a while correctly, try replacing it with a specific measure of time (e.g., ‘a minute’, ‘an hour’, ‘a day’). If it still makes sense, a while is correct.

‘Awhile ago’ or ‘a while ago’

A while ago is commonly used to refer to an unspecified time in the past. ‘Awhile ago’ is incorrect—the adverb awhile must always modify a verb. That means you need the noun here.

Example: ‘A while ago’ in a sentence
Massimo visited Florence a while ago, and he loved it.

‘Awhile back’ or ‘a while back’

A while back is synonymous with a while ago. It’s commonly used to refer to an unspecified time in the past. ‘A while back’ is incorrect; you need the noun phrase a while, not the adverb awhile (which can only modify a verb).

Example: ‘A while back’ in a sentence
My car broke down a while back, but it’s fixed now.

Worksheet: A while vs awhile

You can test your understanding of the difference between ‘awhile’ and ‘a while’ with the worksheet below. Fill in ‘awhile’ or ‘awhile’ in each sentence.

  1. Ariana was tired, so she sat _______.
  2. Trevor said he would call in _______.
  3. _______ later, I realised I had lost my wallet.
  4. Jade hadn’t seen Jean-Paul in _______, so she asked him to stay _______.
  5. _______ ago, I saw a fox in the garden.
  1. Ariana was tired, so she sat awhile.
    • Here, ‘awhile’ is correct. It is an adverb meaning ‘for a short period of time’. In this instance, it is modifying the verb ‘sat’.
  1. Trevor said he would call in a while.
    • Here, the noun phrase ‘a while’ is correct. It means ‘a period of time’ and is typically preceded by a preposition (e.g., ‘in’).
  1. A while later, I realised I had lost my wallet.
    • Here, the noun phrase ‘a while’ is correct. As a noun phrase, it can be modified by an adjective to qualify the unspecified period of time. In this instance, it’s modified by the adjective ‘later’.
  1. Jade hadn’t seen Jean-Paul in a while, so she asked him to stay awhile.
    • Here, both ‘a while’ and ‘awhile’ are correct. In the first instance, the noun phrase ‘a while’ is used to refer to an unspecified period of time. In the second instance, the adverb ‘awhile’ is used to modify the verb ‘stay’.
  1. A while ago, I saw a fox in the garden.
    • ‘A while ago’ and ‘a while back’ both refer to an unspecified time in the past. ‘Awhile ago’ and ‘awhile back’ are never correct, as the adverb ‘awhile’ must always modify a verb.

     

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    Eoghan Ryan

    Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.

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