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A writing friend of mine, Gil Miller, asked me some time ago to explain the difference between awhile and a while. He has a book coming out on the 14th of December (from the same publisher as my book, by the way), so I hope this question didn’t come up. I’ve read parts of his book, Spree. It’s a wild tale about two potheads who while away the time, but probably never have occasion to use the word in question.

At any rate, here’s the answer:

Awhile is an adverb. That means that it tells us about verbs. Consider this sentence:

We must wait awhile.

How long must we wait? Awhile.

Or this one:

The cat puked on the rug awhile ago.

When did this happen? Awhile ago.

Adverbs also tell us about adjectives, but in this particular case, no use of awhile modifying an adjective comes to mind. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the comments.

By contrast, an object of a preposition must be a noun or a pronoun. Recall that prepositions are anything that an airplane can do to a cloud. (Thank you Principal Wuttke.) The plane can fly over, under, through, by, toward, for, against, and so forth that poor puffy accumulation of water vapor. Try this sentence:

We must wait for a while.

In that case, while is the object of the preposition, for, and thus has to be a noun referring to a length of time. Or how about this:

The cat puked on the rug for a while.

We see here that whatever was bothering the cat took its time getting out.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, is it 4:20 yet?

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