Student Stumper 34: While or awhile?

QUESTION: Which is correct, for a while or for awhile?

ANSWER: This question was posted on my community forum. It was easy for me to answer the spelling question.  I know that after the preposition “for” we write two words – a while.  That’s because we need a noun object after a preposition. The tricky part was remembering if and when it was ever correct to use awhile as one word. I probably needed that extra moment or two to think because the adverb awhile is a low frequency word compared to the conjunction or noun while. Checking online dictionaries, I recalled the different parts of speech and common uses of these words. Then I  began to think which I’d teach, for a while or awhile since they could be interchangeable: We sat and relaxed  for a while./ We sat and relaxed awhile. Both mean “for a short period of time.”

I think it’s best to favor the more frequently used vocabulary, but it’s helpful to expose students to the less frequently used words, too. For example, while can also function as a verb. We could challenge students to make sense of the expression “while away the hours” by listening to the lyrics for If I Only Had a Brain. This exercise itself reveals the importance of collocations. We hardly ever use while as a verb, but proficient speakers are familiar with the expression “while away the hours,” so if we are going to use while as a verb, then we would very likely use that particular collocation. The point is that although a while (noun phrase) has higher frequency than awhile (adverb) and while (verb), the latter two are still common enough in certain phrases to make them worth learning.

Common phrases with while: for a little while, for a while longer, once in a while

Common phrases with awhile: stay awhile, sit and stay awhile, rest awhile

Poems are yet another way we might expose students to collocations. In searching for uses of the adverb awhile, I came across L. M Montgomery’s Come, Rest Awhile.  What a wonderful piece to share with upper level students! It will also spark some discussion about the pace of life we tend to have in this new century. Once in a while we need a reminder to slow down and enjoy what’s around us.


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