While You’re At It…

Some days I honestly do not know how foreigners learn English. If I as an English-speaking American (Brits, please hold your snarky comments) find it quirky, what must someone from Pakistan, Thailand, or Ethiopia think?

Take today’s The Weight of Words for example: a while versus awhile. My favorite grammar sources agree with what I’m about to present, however, there are a couple that disagree. I’m siding with the majority on this one because one has to draw the line somewhere, and in most cases, rules really are for the writer’s benefit.

When describing a time, which is a noun, use a while. How do you know it’s a noun? The article a before while is the tip off. Also, if you can replace a while with another article/noun combination such as a week, then you should be using the two-word combo of a and while.

I’ve been here a while

I’ve been here a week.

As for awhile, it’s used as an adverb and means for a time. To know if the single word is the choice for your sentence, try replacing it with another adverb.

Go rest awhile.

Go rest quietly.

Think you got it? Good, let’s make it confusing, because what is English if not confusing? Try rephrasing Go rest awhile by replacing the adverb with a prepositional phrase. Now you need the noun again because an adverb cannot be the object of a preposition.

Go rest awhile. (The adverb modifies the verb.)

Go rest for a while. (The article and noun are the object of the preposition.)

In short, an easy way to remember is to use a while when you need a noun and awhile when you need an adverb. Remember to test your sentence with other nouns (a week, a day) and adverbs (temporarily, silently) to determine which is correct at the moment.

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