'Awhile' or 'a while'?

To understand when “a while” is preferable to “awhile,” you need a firm grasp on grammar concepts most of us are never taught: the true nature of adverbs, how adverbs differ from adverbials and how prepositions work with objects. Yet people who never learned those concepts often get “a while” and “awhile” right anyway.

For example, when I do a Google search for “Let’s just wait for a while,” which is correct, I get about 470,000 hits. But when I search for “Let’s just wait for awhile,” which is wrong, I get fewer than 16,000 hits.

Here’s what most English speakers don’t know they know about “a while” and “awhile.”
For starters, we’re talking about different parts of speech. “A while” is a noun. Well, technically it’s a noun phrase because it has more than one word. But that’s splitting hairs. A noun phrase works just like a noun.

“Awhile” is an adverb. Contrary to what your third-grade teacher may have led you to believe, adverbs aren’t just those ly words that describe actions. Instead, an adverb answers the question “when?” “where?” or “in what manner?” Plus, sentence adverbs like “therefore” and “however” modify whole clauses or sentences. So if you look up “tomorrow” in a dictionary, you’ll see that it’s both a noun and an adverb. That makes sense because it answers the question “when?” Another example: “There” is also an adverb because it answers the question “where?” Sometimes, these rules for adverbs are a less intuitive, which is why it’s not completely clear that “awhile” answers the question “when?” But it deals with time the same way, so it’s an adverb.

“For” is a preposition. Prepositions take objects, which are always either nouns, pronouns or whole phrases or clauses working as nouns. So when you buy a gift “for Walter,” the noun “Walter” is the object of the preposition. If you’d rather say you’re buying a gift “for him,” the pronoun “him” is the object of the preposition.

Adverbs can’t be objects of prepositions. You can’t say “for quickly” or “at happily” or “with slowly.” And because “awhile” is an adverb, you can’t say “for awhile.” Only the noun form can go there: for a while.
You might guess that, if “awhile” can’t be used as a noun, then “a while” can’t be used as an adverb. So you’d surmise that “stay awhile” is correct and “stay a while” is wrong. Not so. The reason: adverbials. Here’s the full story in my recent column.

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