Nikki’s Editing Tips: awhile vs. a while

Two rocking chairs in front of a brick wall with the text "stay awhile" to the left

This summer, I’m working on refreshing my first ever book series, the Dragons of Arethia Trilogy. This past week, I began proofreading Tesa’s Journey, the first book in the series. I first wrote and published it in 2014, and let’s just say I’ve learned a lot since I hit “publish” on that first book! While I’m happy it’s been out there for people to enjoy all this time, I’ll also be very glad to have the refreshed, cleaned-up copy out in the world too!

So here’s a grammar tip I learned while working on this book: I had been misusing “awhile” (one word), and “a while” (two words). Here’s a screenshot from my edited document:

Originally, I had written “After awhile,” and spellcheck flagged it for me. I then looked it up to see what the difference was between one word or two.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “awhile” as one word is an adverb, meaning it is used to modify a verb, while “a while” is used as a noun. So, in my example above I might instead have said “After she had ridden awhile,” so that the verb “ridden” is directly before “awhile.” In my case, though, I used it as a noun, so I should keep it as two words, like spellcheck suggested.

But wait, there’s a twist! The article from Merriam-Webster does note some cases where usage of either awhile or a while diverge from this usage, and that it happens often enough that they may eventually consider it to be standard usage. And they do note that overall, there isn’t much difference for the reader. If you self publish and you do choose to use the words in a nonstandard way in your writing, you will want to make sure you do it consistently throughout your book. For my book, I decided to go with standard usage, and I noted the change in my style sheet so that I can keep it consistent with future books in the series.

So, how can you be sure you’re using the words correctly? Try this trick from the Chicago Manual of Style’s FAQ: If you want to use “awhile,” try substituting “for a while” in the sentence. In my example above, that would result in “After for a while,” which definitely doesn’t make sense. But, if I had written “After she had ridden awhile,” I could substitute it and end up with “After she had ridden for a while,” and that sounds fine.

awhile = for a while

So there you go! Now you can go confidently forth and write awhile…or for a while…whichever one you choose.