Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“A while” or “awhile”; “for a while” or “for awhile”?

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“See you later, alligator” – “In awhile, crocodile”

This catchphrase of the 1950s greatly amused my brother and me when very young. awhile_bill_haleySaying goodbye, you would gigglingly go “See you later, alligator” and the other person would reply “In awhile, crocodile.”

Or should that be “In a while”?

If you google “In awhile, crocodile”, Google wags its finger at you and asks if you mean “in a while”.

That question goes straight to the crux. Is it “in a while” or “in awhile” (not to mention “after a while/awhile” “once in a while/awhile”, etc., etc.)

The spelling variation happens because there are two distinct “words”: the noun while, meaning “a period of time” and the adverb awhile, meaning “for a short time”.

The noun we use now descends from the Old English noun hwíl, first recorded in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, before 888, and is related to the modern German die Weile, meaning “while”.

The adverb awhile was, ironically, not written as two words until the thirteenth century and is a combination of the noun to give áne hwíle “(for) a while”. It is first recorded in Beowulf.

Summary

  • Following a preposition (e.g. after awhile), awhile is accepted in some US sources, but not in British ones, and is more common in North American English, though not unknown in British. (2.2, 3.2, 4.1-2)
  • Possible overgeneralization of the statement that “awhile is an adverb” means it is used in cases where most people would write “a while”. (2.3)
  • In many contexts there are two possible grammatical interpretations. (2.1, 4.3)
  • The verb used with the word/phrase can heavily influence the spelling as one word or two.

awhile_in-a-while-crocodile

Is there a rule?

Various online grammar sites propose rules that can be summarized as follows:

1.1 Awhile is an adverb. Being an adverb, it modifies a verb. It means “for a short time”. Therefore, if you can replace it with the phrase “for a short time”, you are using it correctly:

We lingered awhile by the pool –> We lingered by the pool for a short time.

(The unspoken corollary of this is that after any verb awhile should be used, which is not true, as explained at 2.1 below).

1.2 If you cannot replace awhile with “for a short time”, you should write the two words separately. Therefore, “I’ll be with you in a while” is correct because otherwise you would have “in for a short time”, i.e. with two incompatible prepositions.

1.3A while” should be written as two words when it is is a noun phrase. Online examples given are a) “We have a while left to wait” (have requires a direct object, which ought to make it clear that while functions as a noun here), and b) “I saw her a while ago”. awhile_new-yorker-cartoon

1.4 As an adverb, awhile cannot follow a preposition, therefore “in awhile” is incorrect.

Such rules attempt to give simple, straightforward explanations. However, they can be somewhat circular. Write it as two words if it’s a noun – but how do you recognize it as a noun in the first place? Apart from the circularity, they do not seem to allow for:

2.1 It is not only words classed as adverbs that fulfil adverbial functions. You can also use noun phrases as adjuncts (of time duration), in which case certain prepositions are optional, e.g. l stayed there for a week/month/year, etc. Accordingly, it would be quite reasonable to interpret the sentence in 1.1 above as of this kind, i.e. “We lingered for  a while by the pool”.

(The Oxford Online Dictionary recognizes this in its category 1.1 of while, with examples such as “Can I keep it a while?”)

2.2 Second, a sizeable minority of English speakers do in fact write “for/in/after/ etc. awhile”.

This use is recognized, for example, in the Merriam-Webster online usage note: “Although considered a solecism by many commentators, awhile, like several other adverbs of time and place, is often used as the object of a preposition <for awhile there is a silence — Lord Dunsany>.”

2.3 Third, adhering blindly to, or misinterpreting, the rule “if it modifies a verb”, often leads to uses like this, which many people would regard as wrong: awhile_calmdown

Conversely, “a while” as two words is often used following verbs, where the rule at 1.1 above states that it should be one word.

If you happen to walk down your local high street today, pause a Proustian moment by the open doorway of Greggs and linger a while.

Daily Telegraph, 2012

(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Greggs is a chain of food outlets selling economically priced sandwiches, cakes, etc. Hence the irony of the quotation.)

2.4 Certain adverbs can and do follow prepositions, e.g. since yesterday, for once.

Holy mackerel! So what do I write when, please!

3.1 You could test that you are dealing with a noun phrase. Try substituting another “duration” noun phrase in your sentence. In the example in the image above: “It just took me | some time / a few minutes / several hours / etc. to get loose and calm down”.

Using that substitution works for the sentences at 1.2 and 1.3: “I’ll be with you in| a while / a few minutes / seconds / etc. ”

We have| a while / an hour / several hours / etc. left to wait

I saw her| a while / an hour / a day or two / etc. ago

3.2 When it comes to prepositions, usage varies. To write “in awhile, for awhile, once in awhile” etc. is more frequent in American English than in British English. (See 4 for a few figures.)

The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage gives it its blessing, and quotes several examples, e.g. …he had dosed it for awhile with an elm compress soaked in whiskey. Garrison Keillor, WLT: A Radio Romance, 1991.

In contrast, the OED (admittedly, the unrevised entry of 1885) categorically proclaims:  “Improperly written together, when there is no unification of sense, and while is purely a n.”

You have been warned!

Its first quotation, from Caxton, in 1489, shows, however, that said “impropriety” has been around a very long time.

It was doon but awhyle agoon.

tr. C. de Pisan Bk. Fayttes of Armes i. xxiii. 72

awhile_record

Do usage and style guides help?

Neither the Economist, nor the Telegraph, nor the Guardian style guide mentions the issue.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edn) says, echoing online advice, but disagreeing with Merriam-Webster:

awhile; a while. The one-word version is adverbial {let’s stop here awhile}. The two-word version is a noun phrase that follows the preposition for or in {she worked for a while before beginning graduate studies}.”

The M-W Concise Dictionary of English Usage allows for preposition + awhile, quoting examples with “for/after/once in awhile” and justifying this by referring to a comment in Quirk et al., 1985 that “some adverbs of time and place do occur after prepositions” (see 5).

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, under the entry awhile, says that “More of its uses are sanctioned in the US” and concludes by saying that “Separating awhile into a while may seem to make too much of what is – after all – a vague time period.”

I suspect many editors would disagree.

Conclusion

For most people, the distinction probably doesn’t matter a tinker’s cuss. In contrast, many editors and writers will no doubt have firm views on the matter.

Although a while as two words far outnumbers awhile in the Oxford English Corpus, a minority use it in contexts where most people prefer the two-word form.

There are some contexts in which it seems impossible to come down firmly in favour of one spelling over the other (see 4.3)

awhile_sadimage

4 A few facts and figures

From the Oxford English Corpus (March 2013 release)

4.1 As simple strings

awhile = 11,520 (10.4% of total occurrences)
a while = 98, 770 (89.6%)

Of those 11,520 awhile examples, 7,745 (67.2%) are North American (US, Canada) and 801 (7%) are British English.

Conversely, of the a while examples, 44,060 (44.6%) are North American, and 22,998 (23.3%) are British.

Taking all examples of both spellings, there is a marked difference: the North American percentage ratio of a while:awhile is 85:15% while the British is 96.6:3.4%

4.2 After certain prepositions
The combinations for/in/after a while/awhile broadly reflect the overall percentages, with the single-word spelling hovering round the ten per cent mark.

Turning to specific collocations, of the 4,874 examples of “for awhile”, 3,317 (68%) are North American and 270 (5.5%) British English. With “for a while”, this changes to 20,173 (42%) and 12,096 (25%).

The percentage ratios are therefore 85.9:14.1% for N. Amer. English and 99.4:0.6% for British English, i.e. even more marked for British English than for the overall ratio of the two forms.

awhile_iHadMyOwnBlogForAWhile

4.3 In my mental lexicon at least, awhile still has a sub-poetic or quaint ring, collocating with verbs such as tarry, linger, and the like, or in rare set phrases such as not yet awhile.

However, in the Oxford English Corpus it collocates – though in fairly small numbers – with a range of verbs related to speech (chat, talk), relaxed states (rest, chill, sleep) and mental activity (muse, meditate). Its two most common verb collocates are wait and take.

For most of these verbs, it looks to me like a moot (British English meaning, i.e. debatable) point whether to interpret the combination as verb + adverb or verb + noun phrase used adverbially: people clearly do both.

Browsers take awhile to catch up to state-of-the-art from scratch.

The Mac Observer, 2012.

In this case, awhile as an adverb of duration could be compared with forever (though that’s the only one I can think of).

The results are impressive. The problem is that it can take a while to process the shot.

The Mac Observer, 2011.

In this case, a while could be replaced by another noun phrase, such as some time, quite some time, a few minutes, etc. awhile_Obamacare

I can see no meaning difference between the two. Perhaps a wiser head than mine can. However, as 4.4 illustrates, the choice of verb does seem to have a marked effect on spelling.

4.4 The collocates of a while and awhile for all parts of speech are very similar, and similar in relative frequency, in a span of two preceding and one following word. When it comes to verbs, there are many overlaps but also some interesting differences.

4.4.1 The most frequent verb lemma with both is TAKE. It accounts for 47% of all verb collocations with awhile, whereas with a while the figure is 62%, which might suggest that TAKE exerts a strong influence on the two-word spelling, in line with while being interpreted here as its noun object. (See examples at 4.3.)

With SPEND, a while has 292 (96.4%) examples, awhile a mere 11, illustrating an even stronger influence than for take.

This is on page 99, at which point he’s spent a while seeking to disprove that god exists (no capital g for Him).

Daily Telegraph, 2013

This was after she spent awhile attacking me, of course.

Canadian English blog, 2004.

4.4.2 With the lemma WAIT, the percentage ratio of a while:awhile is 85.2:14:8%, i.e. a higher percentage of awhile than in the overall figures at 4.1.

We had planned on doing another mile or so by the River Hull but here the grasses on the floodbank were rank and it was like walking in knee-high snow. One can’t whinge, and this route can wait a while until the powerful herd of 25 creamy cattle have eaten their way through.

The Press (York, UK), 2005

But I suspect that Hillary Clinton will wait awhile until more of these precincts have reported.

CNN transcripts, 2008.

4.4.3 In contrast, with the lemma STAY, the ratio of a while:awhile is 56.4:43.6%, suggesting that STAY exerts a strong attraction for the single-word form.

4.4.4 Finally, with REST the split comes even closer to being 50:50, with 63 (52.5%) examples for a while and 57 (47.5%) for awhile, suggesting a very strong influence by the verb on the single-word form.

There is always something happening in a Glazunov symphony, even if you do feel that he could do with resting a while and taking stock.

Scotland on Sunday, 2004

Time to rest awhile before regaining strength ready for next week.

Boris Johnson, blog, 2005

awhile_book_cover

4.5 In all the following examples, taken from grammarist.com, it seems to me that either spelling could be used, depending on where you are, and personal preference. However, the spellings shown reflect the tendencies previously described.

But if they give him The Tonight Show back, maybe it ends up all right after a while

Starlings foray across the land and rest awhile on the sunlit twigs of ash.

After a while, Rawls came in to let another set of children have a chance. 

Crazy Horse watched this awhile and then rode down the river where some men were going out to repair the talking wires. 

We’ve been talking for a while when Baroness Campbell of Surbiton suddenly cuts to the chase, and leaves me speechless.

Beyond the bar, soft white leather booths beckon you to sit, take off your coat and stay awhile

5 Quirk et al., 1985, 5.64, p. 282.

“A number of adverbs signifying time and place function as complement of a preposition.”

Because for and after often co-occur with a while, relevant examples taken from Quirk et al. are after| then/today/yesterday/now, and for| today/always/ever/once.


And here are Bill Haley and his Comets with the original song.

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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