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You know how annoying it is when your computer thinks it knows better than you. Don’t you absolutely hate those red squiggles? I know I do.

I was writing a report the other day and the squiggles kept coming up under “a while” asking me to change it to “awhile”. The problem that my stupid Mac doesn’t understand is, these are two different things and not really interchangeable.

A while is a noun. It stands for a time. Could be anything. It could a year, a month, a fortnight, a week – anything. So when I say,

It’s been a while since I saw him

I could mean,

It’s been a month since I saw him

It’s been a week since I saw him

It’s been a year since I saw him

It’s been two years since I saw him

So when I say “a while” what I mean is a unit of time that is not specific. It doesn’t have to be exactly a week since I saw him, but it’s around that.

Used this way, you are putting an article (a) before a noun (while) and it can be replaced with the same combination of other article-nouns. In my above examples, it was thus:

article         noun

  a              while

  a              week

 a              year

   a              month

But then this isn’t a binding rule because, in the last sentence, I used “two years”, which is an adjective and a noun – two + years. Again, this denotes a unit of time, but not necessarily an exact unit of time – it doesn’t have to be exactly two years since I saw him.

So rounding up, “a while” is an article+noun that is used to denote a vague unit of time, but time nonetheless. When I say

It’s been a while since Apple made any significant changes in its design,

I mean that I know it’s been some time, but I don’t know exactly when the last design change was made. Note that you could replace “while” here with any unit of time – year, decade, whatever.

On the other hand, “awhile” is an adverb. We know that an adverb is a modifier. In this case, “awhile” is an adverb because it modifies a verb that is to follow or precede.

Awhile is always used with a verb. Consider the following sentences:

Go read awhile.

Wait awhile.

I think I will sleep awhile.

So you see how the verbs read, wait and sleep are getting modified? No? Okay, let’s break down one of the sentences a little more.

Go read awhile.

In this, awhile stands for “for a time”. It’s also vague, because I am not specifying how long you should go read for. But “awhile” literally means “for a while”. But when we use “awhile”, we don’t use a preposition. So the essential difference would be:

Go read awhile (no preposition, adverb)

Go read for a while (preposition, article+noun)

Let’s change the sentences a little now.

Go read quietly (no preposition, adverb)

Go read for quietly (grammatically incorrect, so not an adverb)

So this is my tip. When you are confused, simply change the adverb to another adverb. If it works, use “awhile”. If it doesn’t, use “a while”:

Go read awhile/Go read quietly (replacing awhile with quietly still works, so here, you use the adverb “awhile”)

Go read for awhile/Go read for quietly (doesn’t work to replace so you don’t use “awhile” because you are now saying “go read for for a while” (awhile = for a while), and this makes no sense. But if you are using the preposition for, you use Go read for a while)

Stop awhile here, and spend a while again on the article. Hope it becomes clearer to you!