GrammarPhile Blog

Bring Your "A" Game

Posted by Terri Porter   Oct 15, 2015 7:00:00 AM

One word or two? That question comes up frequently, especially with respect to “A” words: Ahold or a hold? Awhile or a while? Alot or a lot? Alright or all right? Consider this sentence:

I’ve been trying to get ahold/a hold of him for awhile/a while because I have alot/a lot of questions, and he seems to think that not returning my calls is alright/all right.

If you’re not sure which words are correct, read on to learn how to make the right choice every time.

Ahold vs. A Hold

Ahold is one of those words that’s become firmly entrenched in American English. Merriam-Webster lists it as a noun and as an acceptable alternative to hold. The one-word form likely morphed from the phrase “a hold” and is often used with some variation of the verb get, as in “Get ahold of yourself.”

Bryan Garner, in Modern American Usage, calls ahold a “casualism,” which some would argue has no place in formal writing. We agree. The use of hold alone — which as a noun can mean “full or immediate control or possession” or “touch” — works just as well:

Get hold of yourself.

I’ve been trying to get hold of you for hours.

One way to remember to use hold by itself is to think of the “a” as an appendix — a useless attachment that can only cause you grief and that’s better excised.

Awhile vs. A While

If you're regularly puzzled by this one, don’t feel bad. You’re in good company. It’s an error we see just about everywhere. While is a noun meaning “a period of time.” Awhile is an adverb meaning “for a while.”

NEVER use “for awhile.” EVER. It’s always “for. a. while.”

Remember this and you’ll have a much easier time knowing how to distinguish these words. Here’s how: If you can substitute “for a while” in your sentence, use awhile (one word):

Tom waited awhile [read: for a while] in line before he reached the counter.

Carly’s been down on her luck awhile [read: for a while].

If using “for a while” doesn’t make sense in the context, use a while (two words):

A while ago, you said I could borrow your car. (You wouldn’t say, “For a while ago, you said …)

It took me a while to understand what you meant. (You wouldn’t say, “It took me for a while to understand …)

Alot vs. A Lot

This one is easy. Don’t use alot. Although it’s commonly used in informal writing, alot is neither a recognized nor an accepted form. Always use a lot.

Alright vs. All Right

Much to our chagrin, you’ll find alright in Merriam-Webster as a variation of all right, along with a usage discussion essentially defending its inclusion but not taking a stand either way. So much for being a definitive authority ….

Bryan Garner says alright may be gaining acceptance in British English, but it’s still not standard in American English, despite its increasing use. In other words, in all but informal contexts, stick with all right. You can’t go wrong.

Remember: Alright isn’t.

If you couldn’t figure out the correct forms in the sentence at the beginning, ideally you can now. Check yourself here:

I’ve been trying to get hold of him for a while because I have a lot of questions, and he seems to think that not returning my calls is all right.

Let us know in the comments below about any other words/word pairs, “A list” or otherwise, that trip you up or that you often see misused.


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Topics: alot/a lot, ahold/a hold, awhile/a while

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