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“A While”: How Long is That?!?

“A While”: How Long is That?!?

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For any child restlessly filled with anticipation and seeking an answer from his or her mom or dad, the reply of in “a while” is never the desired response.

Or even grown-ups who are searching a doctor’s face for any form of expression as to the length and course of a specific recovery, this simple phrase often leaves us with more questions than answers.



So just how long is “a while”?

Since it feels like an eternity for a child and more of a question than answer for most adults, what is the actual definition of “a while?” Well, defining “a while” is nearly as ambiguous as it sounds. The main thing to keep in mind is that it all depends on context. The definition of “a while” is entirely and whole-heartedly dependent upon the context in which it is being used.

For starters, when it is used in a phrase such as “in a while” it is in noun form indicating a period or unit of time. Using “in a while” is a means of communicating a duration or length in order to give someone a time frame-typically, when an exact answer is not known.

On the other hand, when it is used as one word such as “awhile” it takes on the form of adverb and literally means “for a while.” The usage can seem peculiar or odd as they appear to be interchangeable but negate different meanings.

With all of that being said, let’s focus on the noun phrase representing a period of time that can range from short to long, depending upon context of course.

As previously mentioned, the use of this phrase is most helpful when a specific amount of time, such as a month, cannot be established. In fact, if there is a sense of a lengthy amount of unspecified time, the phase morphs itself into “quite a while.”

In this situation, the message is clearly stating the length of time is not a short amount of time; however, it is obviously not an extremely long amount of time either as it is merely a “pretty long time.”


A whileis not the only suspect

Some similar phrases often switched out for in “a while” that exude the same unspecified time frame include “in a minute,” “some time ago,” “in a second,” “a spell,” “a while back,” and “forever” to name a few.

Again, depending upon the context used these phrases can project a positive connotation or denotation on their own merit.

When awaiting discharge from the hospital and the nurse says the doctor will be back “in a minute” to sign off on your paperwork, the context is probably going to leave you waiting much more than 60 seconds.

Physicians have multiple patients and other medical professionals that may need assistance in the time between getting your paperwork and coming back to your room.

Most of us have all had that child who asks for something and you respond that you’ll do it “in a second” only to have the child count, “one, it’s been a second.”

This is a prime example of substituting “in a second” with “in a while” in order to avoid this sarcastic battle of wits in terms of counting to a second.

Here’s an example. Take a kid who has been strapped in the backseat of the car during a six-hour car ride. Grasping for straws to break the madness of the monotony of the road trip, telling him/her the destination will be reached in a while is not going to help matters.

All this child hears is, “we’re never going to get there!” Often, parents use this as a stall tactic or a distraction. Road trips are long for all riders, including the driver, and with traffic jams, weather changes, and construction it is often hard to pinpoint when the estimated time of arrival will ultimately be.

Perhaps the parent is super focused on driving through a rain storm and isn’t really listening to the child and effortlessly responds with this nonchalant and very vague answer simply to pacify the kid for another few miles.

How Long is a While Updated


Studies on time frames in the medical world

The form of distraction or stalling mechanism is equally effective in the medical world. Many times patients do not display cut and dry symptoms and even when they do, their responses to treatments and lengths of recovery times will vary.

So what is a doctor or nurse to do? Offer a careful answer in a thoughtful manner. In the medical community it is also critical to not give out false hope, so the use of this phrase of “a while” will generally suffice most families and friends of the patient.

There have been studies providing some helpful time frames as to the approximate definitions of “in a while” and some of its counterparts.

When dealing with duration of exhibited symptoms, such a study has aided the medical staff in establishing the amount of time a patient may have been under the effects of an illness or disease.

On the shorter side of the table are vague phrases representing time frames of less than a year in length. The study has discovered “a while” estimates a length of 4 months whereas “a little while” would be a little less at 3 months’ time. Going a little further, “a while back” would indicate the potential of occurring up to 8 months in the past.

Some other popular descriptions are “a minute” meaning 3 weeks length with “a hot minute” lasting an additional week for a total of 4 weeks. Then we have the old-time favorite “a spell” leaning toward the time frame of 5 months.

Going up to 9 months’ time is “a long time” and 11 months is equal to “from way back.” Any type of ache and or pain mentioned to the medical staff will turn into a timeline to establish the root of the problem.

Notably, for physicians, these estimated numbers can provide a more specific duration to improve the plan of attack in treating diseases and illnesses going forward.

Have you ever heard people with cancer discussing their stage of cancer or mention the doctor’s response of, “it’s good we caught it early?”

These are common and can enhance and prolong the life of the patient as a better and more effective course of treatment can be used.

In addition to the time frames used for months, there are some that equate to some durations extending for more than a year. When someone says “forever” they are roughly suggesting 7 years long. This may come to mind when seeing a friend from high school or an old college roommate.


Forever and beyond

Piggybacking off of the phrase forever is the expression “forever and a day” which indicates a time of 12 years.

Maybe this is for that neighbor kid you played with during the summers at grandma’s house or the cousins you only saw at family reunions. Moving beyond the realm of forever is the ever-popular phrase of “always.”

When you hear someone talk of how long they’ve lived at the same residence or you think of the worker at your hometown store that has been faithful for years, you may hear the remark that they are “always” there.

This length of time has been studied to mean roughly 27 years! That definitely seems like forever to be at one job!

Our everyday conversations may not always include these distractions or stalls in terms of time frames, but even the smallest uses of them come up from time to time.

Even saying that something has lasted for “months” or is going to be completed in “months” can now be focused in and mean 2 months exactly. Or if you state you’ve been living in your home for “years,” we can pinpoint the length of time to be 3 years of time spent living in your humble abode.


Don’t forget: CONTEXT is always KEY!

Since we are being precise, we have to keep in mind the context. Remember, context is key! As anyone who has ever waited for their potato computer to turn on or a specific screen to load knows, a period of 5 minutes can last for what seems like an eternity.

On the flip side of that, if you are going out to dinner with a large group of friends or family members and it only takes 5 minutes for your food to hit the table after you order it, well that is a very fast 5 minutes! So it comes down to context and a little perspective too.

What have we learned today? Well for starters, time is of the essence and rarely accurately noted in terms of specific durations. A phrase like “a while” heads a long list of generic periods of time that people use on a regular basis.

Whether this is to act as a distraction or a method for stalling, individuals keep these phrases in their word banks and unleash them as needed depending upon the context of the situation.

From medical professionals investigating the symptoms of a patient to a parent putting off the answering of a child’s question, understanding the improper everyday language of our culture can help us.

With the new information studied on linking a real amount of time to such phrases, we are able to take a generalized phrase and turn it into a more specific period of time.

See you in a while, Linguaholics!