Well, the difference is an easy one but we just seem to forget it every now and then.
A while is a noun, which means “a length of time”.
For example: Mac slept for a while.
This basically means “Mac slept for a bit”.
Other examples for ‘a while’:
- I was away from work for a while.
- I had gone on leave for a while.
The article ‘a’ is used before ‘while’ indicates to us that what we are dealing with is a noun for sure. This is a nice short cut for you to check the usage. Replace ‘a while’ with ‘a year’ (another noun combination) and if the sentence makes sense, that means you were right in the first place.
Awhile, on the other hand, is an adverb and it means “for a short time”
For example: “I slept awhile in the office”.
See how “awhile” modifies the verb “slept” and tell us about its duration.
Tip to check correct usage of awhile: replace awhile with another adverb such as quietly and you would know for sure whether you have used it correctly or not.
Common usage for Awhile/a while
- Go play awhile
- Go play for a while.
In the first sentence, we mean play for a short time.
In the second sentence, we mean play for some time. In the second sentence, since we used a prepositional phrase, we need to use a noun and hence “a while”. This is because an adverb cannot be the object of a preposition, we need a noun for that.