English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“After a while” vs. “in a while”

Q: I recently moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. I have noticed that people out West say, “after a while” in situations where I would say, “in a while.” Which is grammatically correct? This is really bothering me!

A: Bother yourself no longer. There’s very little difference between “in a while” and “after a while,” and for the most part they’re interchangeable.

We’ve never heard of a regional preference for one or the other. English speakers seem to choose one or the other at will. Generally, your ear will choose one for you.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the noun phrase “a while” means “a time, esp. a short or moderate time,” and that it’s used chiefly with the prepositions “after,” “for,” and “in.”

Although the two expressions are generally used the same way, their literal meanings are different.

Here the word “in” means “within limits of space, time, condition, circumstances, etc.,” the OED says. So the literal meaning of “in a while” is within the limits of a short or moderate time.

And “after” in reference to time means “subsequent to, following the interval of, at the conclusion of (a period of time),” the OED says. So “after a while” literally means following a short or moderate time.

But for all practical purposes, the two expressions amount to the same thing, since the time referred to is so nebulous. It’s of little consequence whether something occurs within or following a time that’s general and unspecified.

However, you might prefer one version over the other in certain circumstances—or even for psychological reasons.

For example, agreeing to do a task “in a while” sounds more accommodating than agreeing to do it “after a while.”

And in certain constructions, “in” is more idiomatic—“once in a while” … “see you in a while.” But in others, “after” might seem more natural—“After a while, the pain subsided” …  “After a while, we decided to leave.”

Both “in a while” and “after a while” have been common English phrases for hundreds of years.

“In a while” and the now obsolete “within a while” were first recorded about 1380, the OED says. “After a while” first showed up in 1526.

And after a while, the expressions became almost automatic.

While we’re at it, you might be interested in a post we ran back in 2006 about “a while” versus “awhile,” and a post in 2008 about the use of “while” to mean “although,” “whereas,” or “during the time that.”

In the earlier post, we mention that “while” comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “rest” or “repose,” and it entered Old English from Germanic sources. It can be a noun, a conjunction, or a verb, as in this sentence:

“For a while, we whiled away our time while answering your question.” 

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