Word Confusion: A While vs Awhile vs While vs Wile

Posted November 4, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

The first three words are definitely one of my bête noirs, and I’ve reworked the definitions several times as they are tricky buggers.

The fourth word was added after I ran into an author confused about the difference between while and wile; I’ve added the latter into the post. It’s a wily sort of word, a connotation of underhandedness as it seeks to deceive and completely different from the while — and not just because it’s missing an h!

Getting back to while, which is itself a tricky bugger, while, on its own, is relatively simple with no question of whether the a is separate or attached since it doesn’t exist.

A Trick to Distinguish Between A While and Awhile

Since a while is defined as a long period of time, so is the distance between the two words.

And, since awhile is a short period of time, there isn’t any time for the a to get away!

It’s determining the a‘s position when it’s present that becomes so much more difficult. In general, you’re probably fairly safe in assuming that if you are using for, then the a is on its own.

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Examining differences between…
A While Awhile
You can test if you should use a while or awhile by replacing awhile with a different adverb. If it works, use awhile. If it doesn’t work, use a while, although this test is not infallible.

Snarky Grammar Guide

In general, you’re better off determining if the phrase or word is a noun or an adverb.

Can I keep it for a while?


Can I keep it for a while?

“a while” is functioning as a noun phrase

Can I keep it awhile?

Can I keep it eagerly?
Can I keep it blindly?
Can I keep it often?

According to Snarky, it doesn’t work, and yet “awhile” does work as an adverb since it modifies “keep”. — as in “how long can I keep it?” Awhile.

I worked for a while before leaving for my date.

“a while” is functioning as a noun phrase

I worked awhile before leaving for my date.

I worked slowly…
I worked quickly…

“awhile” is working as an adverb modifying “worked”

C’mon, baby, we’ll just play for a while. C’mon, baby, we’ll just play awhile.

…we’ll just play happily.
…we’ll just play badly.

“awhile” works as an adverb modifying how long “play” will last

George! Hi! Come sit down and stay for a while.

“a while” functions as a noun

George! Hi! Come sit down and stay awhile.

…and stay silently?
…and stay poorly?
…and stay gracefully?

Okay, they are awkward adverbs *eye roll*, and yet, “awhile” does functions as an adverb modifying “stay”

We have a while left to wait.

“a while” functions as a noun

We will have to wait awhile.

…wait weekly?
…wait solemnly?
…wait politely.

“awhile” functions as an adverb modifying how long the “wait” will be

Guests waited for a while for food.

“a while” works as a noun here

Guests waited awhile for food.

Guests waited impatiently for food.

“awhile” is an adverb that modifies “waited”

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. This particular confusion between “authorities” is another reason why I started writing these posts about Word Confusions. I want a central “authority” I can head to when I have a question. And I don’t want to spend endless hours hunting through the online and print confusion trying to make sense of it!

If you found this post on “A While v Awhile v While v Wile” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates — and I hope you’ll share with us words or examples that have helped you figure this one out.

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A  While Awhile While Wile
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Grammar Girl; and, The Snarky Grammar Guide

A skeleton sits backwards on a horse waiting for a blacksmith, dressed as a fool, to finish his job. Woodcut.

Image is courtesy of Wellcome Trust [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

He’s obviously been waiting a while for the blacksmith to show up.

Waiting for a bus, Cosham. These three were waiting for a bus while I was taking pictures of Geograph image 81977 and wanted me to take a picture of them, so here it is!

Image by Martyn Pattison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, it will only be awhile for these kids waiting for the bus.

Woman lying back in hammock

Reading can while away many hours.

You can find this on the second floor of Building 9 at MIT, in the corridor that should lead to Building 7 (but doesn't). See linked pictured to see how there are steps that lead downward but then don't go anywhere.

“Acme Instant Tunnel box” by Kenneth uploaded from Flickr [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wile E. Coyote hits MIT with a slam.

Part of Grammar:
Article + Noun = Noun phrase Adverb

The for is built-in:

for a while
Adverb, relative 1;
Conjunction, subordinating 2;
Noun 1;
Verb, transitive 1

Alternate spelling for the adverb and conjunction: whiles
Past tense or past participle: whiled
Gerund or present participle: whiling

Verb, transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: wiles
Past tense or past participle: wiled
Gerund or present participle: wiling

Frequently used after prepositions

for a while
once in a while

A period of time


For some time

A length of time

For a while
(Remember, “awhile” MEANS “for a while”, it doesn’t mean it’s written as “for awhile”.)

For a short time
Adverb, relative:
As (indicating a contrast)

In spite of the fact that


[British, variation] Whilst

Conjunction, subordinating:
During or in the time that

Throughout the time that

  • As long as
  • All the time that

Even though

  • Although

At the same time that (showing an analogous or corresponding action)

[British] Whilst

A period of time

[the while] At the same time, meanwhile

Time and effort used in the performance of an action

[Poetic, literary] During the time that

[Archaic] Until

Pass time in a leisurely manner

Devious or cunning stratagems employed in manipulating or persuading someone to do what one wants

Verb, transitive:
[Archaic] Lure, entice, beguile

The phrase wile away the time is another way of saying while away the time

Can I keep it a while?

We’ll be there in a while.

I want to rest for a while before I go out tonight.

Every once in a while I like to head out to the beach.

After a while it all seems the same.

It’s been a while since I last saw you, Mary.

I worked awhile before leaving for my date.

Look, just stand here awhile.

We paused awhile before we continued on.

Adverb, relative:
The period while the animal remains alive is critical.

Enjoy the season whilst it’s here.

Conjunction, subordinating:
Nothing much changed while he was away.

One person wants out, while the other wants the relationship to continue.

While I wouldn’t recommend a nighttime visit…

Whilst Lady Gwendolyn reclined…

While she appreciated the honor, she could not accept the position.

The floor was strewn with books, while magazines covered the tables.

A synonym more common to British usage, whilst is considered pretentious and/or old-fashioned in America.

Please light the fire while I’m cooking.

I prefer to stay inside while it’s raining.

He starts to draw, talking the while.

Hey, I’ll make it worth your while.

[Poetic, literary] …beseeching, him, the while his hand she wrung…

He determined to continue wile he could persuade her his cause was just.

Verb, transitive:
It was simply a diversion to while away the long afternoons.

Whiling away the hours, he read a book.

He tried to work his wiles on her.

Use your wiles to get the terms you want.

Verb, transitive:
He could be neither driven nor wiled into the parish kirk.

Oh, well, it’s another way to wile away the time.

I’ve got to find something to do to wile away the time!

The end of that chapter wiled her from her work.

Adjective: wily, wilier, wiliest
Verb, transitive: outwile, outwiled, outwiling
History of the Word:
Old English Old English (before 12th century) āne hwīle meaning (for) a while. 1 Old English hwīl meaning period of time is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch wijl and the German Weile.

2 An abbreviation of Old English thā hwīle the meaning the while that.

Middle English and might be from an Old Norse word related to vél meaning craft.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Photo Credits:


Farewelling the troop ship Strathallan as it leaves Melbourne“, 15 December 1939, by Edward ‘Ted’ L.F. Cranstone finds “women friends and family on the wharf waving farewell to the departing troop transport ship RMS Strathallan carrying the advance party of the 6th Division AIF to service overseas. They include: George Vasey’s wife, Jessie (second from the left), her sisters Thelma Halbert (left) and Doris Sleigh (second from right), and Vasey’s sister Marjorie (right). The photograph is especially poignant because Vasey did not return from the war.

This image is available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: 000304/01 and is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired. According to the Australian Copyright Council (ACC), ACC Information Sheet G023v17 (Duration of copyright) (August 2014).

The background is “New Zealand soldiers at Anzac Cove, 1915” and is one of a set of 14 photographs given to [GrahamBould] by [his] “grandmother. My grandfather, who was wounded at Gallipoli, obtained these from another New Zealand soldier who was subsequently killed.”

This work is in the public domain in New Zealand and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less. This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.