English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“A while” and “awhile”

Q: I know there’s a difference in the way one uses “awhile” and “a while,” but I can’t remember what it is. Is it correct to say “for a while” or “for awhile” – and, just for fun, where does “while” come from?

A: “Awhile” is an adverb meaning “for a time.” (The “for” is inherent in the word, so “for awhile” would be redundant.) “A while” is a noun phrase meaning “a period of time.” You could correctly say “We sat awhile and spent a while talking.” Or, “When he called a while ago, we talked awhile and laughed for a while.”

More than a little confusing, aren’t they?

“While” comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “rest” or “repose,” and it entered Old English from Germanic sources. It is a noun (for “period of time”), a conjunction (meaning “during the time that”), and a verb (to “while” means to spend time idly). I’ll take a crack at a sentence with all three: “For a while, he whiled away his time by eating while watching TV.”