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A Word, Please: Switching off your grammar autopilot

February 04, 2014|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

Making good grammar decisions usually requires very little grammar. If the sentence "Whom are you?" sounds wrong, it probably is. You don't need to know why. You need never have heard the term "predicate nominative" or even "object pronoun." Call it grammar autopilot.

But there are exceptions — specifics and subtleties of the language that require extensive grammar for a small payoff. The most striking example is "a while" and "awhile." To know which one to use, you need to know what a preposition is, you need to know what the object of a preposition is, you need to know what an adverbial is, and you need to know what an adverb is. That last one is harder than you may realize.

Most people would define an adverb as a word that usually ends in "ly" and describes the action in a verb, like "quickly" in "Brian ran quickly" or "happily" in "Harper sang happily." But that's not the definition of an adverb — it's just one type, called a "manner adverb" because it describes the manner in which an action took place.

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Adverbs are a broader category that includes "there," as in "Put it there," and even "tomorrow," as in "I'll see you tomorrow." The best definition of an adverb is a word that indicates manner, time, place or degree.

So because the "there" in "Put it there" indicates place, it's an adverb in this sentence. Because "tomorrow" in "I'll see you tomorrow" indicates time, here it's an adverb.

The word "awhile" also indicates time — specifically, a duration. So it's an adverb. But "a while" is not an adverb. It's a noun phrase, made up of the noun "while" and an article. (Like many words, "while" isn't limited to one part of speech. It's often a conjunction too. But in "a while" it's always a noun.)

Here's where things get tricky. Adverbs aren't the only terms that can function adverbially. Compare the sentences "I'll see you tomorrow" and "I'll see you Tuesday." The words "tomorrow" and "Tuesday" perform identical jobs. They're both functioning as adverbials, answering the question "when?" But according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, "tomorrow" is an adverb but "Tuesday" is a noun.

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