Monday, May 10, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: A While vs. Awhile

Let's take a moment, or maybe a while, to consider the difference between awhile or a while.

You've reached the place in your novel where the dentist tells the hapless protagonist, "This will only hurt for a little while." You've written "a little while" as a simple noun phrase: while is the noun that's modified by two adjectives, "a" and "little." (Yes, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, the indefinite article a is a limiting adjective that "points to nonspecific objects, things or persons that are not distinguished from other members of a class.") So, even if you decide to remove "little" from that phrase, a while would still be a noun phrase, with one adjective and one noun.

Because you're aware that the reader's time is precious and patience limited, you decide to tighten your prose. But how? If you type "This will only hurt for a while," your noun phrase will become a prepositional phrase, beginning with "for" and still followed by a limiting adjective and a noun. No problem. But if you change "for a while" to "for awhile," you risk distracting any reader who has an eye for grammar—and you want your readers to focus on the scene itself. Your innocent change has converted a noun to an adverb and, as Paul Brians, in Common Errors in English Usage, explains:
When “awhile” is spelled as a single word, it is an adverb meaning “for a time” (“stay awhile”); but when “while” is the object of a prepositional phrase, like “Lend me your monkey wrench for a while” the “while” must be separated from the “a.”

So your grammarian reader, whether irritated or indulgent, will see this phrase as "for for a while" and pause, in spite of your intention to move that scene forward.

Try out the following options:
This will only hurt for a little while.
This will only hurt for a while.
(Where while is a noun meaning "a period of time.")
This will only hurt awhile.
(Where awhile is an adverb meaning "for a time.")
And then let your ear decide. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Wow, I learn something new every time I read this blog. I didn't even knew that "awhile" existed!