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I’m sorry for the punny title — despite the fact that I have not written on spaces in words/phrases, and despite the fact that today’s entry is on the distinction between a while and awhile, there was no need to call it that. If it makes you feel any better, I’m paying the price for this title now, as my brain is stuck on an infinite loop of the Staind song with this title.
But having that song is my head is just as well, because Staind got it wrong. According to Amazon, the song’s title on the CD is “It’s Been Awhile”, when it ought to be “It’s Been a While”. The basic idea with a while/awhile is that it’s two words when it’s a noun phrase, and one word when it’s an adverb. One way to check this is to see if you can replace a while/awhile by for a while. If you can, it’s one word; if you can’t, it’s two words. So, for instance:
(1a) After the needlessly long hike, I slept awhile and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.
(1b) After the needlessly long hike, I slept for a while and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.
(2a) It’s been a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.
(2b) *It’s been for a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.
In sentence (1a), awhile refers to the period of sleeping. It’s an adverbial phrase, modifying slept. In sentence (2a), you’re using a while refers to the length of time between when I thought Staind was a good band and now (when, of course, I think Staind is a great band). It’s a noun phrase, and could grammatically be replaced with a more explicit length of time, such as ten minutes, 600 seconds, or one-sixth of an hour, but not by the phrase for ten minutes.
Awhile isn’t a really big player in Standard American English anymore, if it ever was. Google Books turns up ~2000 hits for awhile in books since 2000, compared to ~48000 for a while. In my experience, people generally use for a while instead of awhile. This is a happy circumstance, because it means that when you’re uncertain about which form to use, you’ll be pretty likely to succeed if you choose a while with the space. I would even go so far as to say that you will always succeed if you include the space; the Oxford English Dictionary considers a while to be an acceptable spelling for both the adverb [1c(a)] and noun [1c(b)] uses. In fact, the adverbial sense was originally two words; its first two attestations in the OED (from 1000 and 1250 AD) were as two words, and only later does the single-word spelling appear. And, though the OED considers it an improper usage, awhile as a noun phrase has been attested in serious writings over 100 years ago (1872, 1882). So you’re not in bad company if you add or subtract a space improperly.
[I forgot to mention this at first, but this post was actually the result of a request by erinstraza. I intend to respond to more of the backlog of requests in the near future.]
Summary: Here’s the deal with awhile/a while. One word means adverb, two words means noun phrase. (As a possible mnemonic, adverb is a single word and noun phrase is two words.) If you can replace it with for a while, it’s one word. You can’t really be considered wrong (by British standards, at least) if you always use it as two words, and you probably oughtn’t to be considered wrong if you always write it as one — but I would advise against that.
First off, apologies are in order for my extended absence. Last quarter was unduly hectic, and I just didn’t have time to do grammar. But now I am back (at least until this quarter gets unduly busy) with a vengeance. The first target? Some book on place-names and resident-names that I keep on seeing on the shelf at the local (really semi-local) used book store. Being, as I am, bonkers for cartography, I of course picked up this book and began to flip through it, because it’s always interesting to see what crazy and idiosyncratic names are given to residents of an area. My first question was simple: what’s the proper name for myself, as a resident of San Diego? Happily, it was San Diegan, which is what I had been calling myself. So great — haven’t been making a fool of myself. The next question: which is considered more standard for a dyed-in-the-wool steelmaker, a user of needs done, a hill-climbin’ pierogi-lovin’, Ahrn-swillin’ Pittsburgh-bred person like myself — Pittsburgher or Pittsburghian? (I use them both, depending on the circumstance and how strongly I want to avoid thinking about a delicious hamburger.)
The book’s answer was that Pittsburgher was standard, at which point I ought to have stopped reading. But no, I read on, only to learn that the authors of this book believe that Pittsburger is also acceptable.
It is not.
You know that friend with a common name that’s spelled in an uncommon way? You know how they get really agitated when people misspell their name, and you can’t figure out why they’re complaining? For instance, I knew a girl in elementary school who went by Katie, but then one day decided that she’d prefer to go by Katy (which, being at a Catholic school, was pretty dang rebellious). This was all well and good, except that she used to get cheesed at people who would spell her name with an ie. Likewise, I had two friends, one a Jen and one a Jenn, who were occasionally stewing about the inclusion or omission of an n in their names.
My point is that that’s not at all akin to our problem as Pittsburghers. First off, my forefathers fought and died for that h (or at least, they fought for the h and died). The totalitarian (and UNELECTED) U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided in 1893 that “standardization” required the obliteration of our precious h, so for an infamous eighteen years, we were officially Pittsburg to our inside-the-beltway overlords at the USBGN. This went over like a lead balloon. Pittsburgh was the name used on our original city charter, based on the Scots English form -burgh (cf. Edinburgh), so this was a real slap in the face to our Scots-Irish heritage (a heritage which also netted us the oddities of Pittsburgh English). The successor to the USBGN eventually overturned the 1893 law and we returned to being Pittsburgh, but no one can erase this injustice from the history books. Worse, it has left Pittsburg on old maps and correspondence, which in turn has led to the semi-popular misconception that our town lacks an h, like those various Pittsburgs in California, Kansas, etc. (none of which have anywhere near the population/clout of us, so it isn’t that people are getting us confused with them).
All this means that it is the duty of any writer worth his or her salt to correct this misconception when given the chance (I was really hoping that J.K. Rowling would use her position in the literary world to to clarify this by including a chapter in which Ron and Hermione are transported to Pittsburgh), rather than claiming that something so very wrong is “acceptable”.
I apologize for all this ranting, but my fellow patrons in the book store were not terribly interested, despite my passionate entreaties to them to march on the publisher’s headquarters with torches and pitchforks. Seriously, who could turn down torches and pitchforks? Only the sort of fools who’d omit our dear h.
Kids today just can’t bare to declare something. That’s what the grammarians tell me. (We must, of course, ignore the decisiveness of a “no!” from kids asked if they want to play outside instead of in front of the Wii, which must be some sort of anomaly from these grammatic vacillators that are our youth.) Obviously, I am far too intimidated by the wilding of American youngsters to approach one of them and listen to its speech, so I am trusting that this is a well-researched opinion and not just some made-up rubbish like the rest of the grammarians’ claims.
The key feature that sets apart those who have the conviction necessary to say what they mean and the sort of unwashed masses who kinda can’t, like, just say something is the use of qualifying phrases like kind of, sort of, and like. (I’m going to ignore like because it is far too multi-faceted for the present post.) These qualifiers are perceived as recent bastardizations of proper English, used by the kids and the cool to sorta stick it to oldsters who are so uptight and categorical. You can tell they must be recent hipster slang because they’re written as contractions without apostrophes – which is the grammar equivalent of sticking a dunce cap on a phrase and making it sit in the corner.
Now let’s pretend for a second we’re famous and well-respected grammarians – Lynne Truss, William Safire, or your own personal hero – and create a narrative that fits our beliefs that kids use kind of and sort of all the time and real grown-ups almost never use them. One possibility is that kids today are more concerned with snark than content, so you have to always hedge to avoid piddling squabbles like:
“Yo dawg, that red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I don’t see no red car, but there is a slammin’ burgundy car over there.”
“Yeah, that’s the one I was talking about.”
“It’s not red, you colorblind flibbertygibbet. It’s burgundy.” (and so on…)
Compare to the obviously more genial conversation that hedges lead to:
“Yo dawg, that kinda red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I think it’s more sorta burgundy.”
“It’s sorta red, kinda burgundy. Hard to say.”
“Yeah, guess so.” (handshake, or high fives exchanged in a friendly manner)
Of course, we must check to make sure that this narrative is supported by the facts of English usage. Alas, the story is — in truth — spun out of whole cloth. As it turns out, it is precisely us oldsters (or more precisely, our ancestors) who are to blame for introducing these hedges in the first place. Furthermore, the introduction of kind of and sort of proceeded by a slow, steady, — and, some hard-liners might say, pernicious — grammatical change, akin to those little puzzles where by changing one letter at a time you can convert CAT to DOG. (All credit for this is due to Whitney Tabor, who discussed this in a 1994 dissertation, and Rob Malouf, who discussed it in his book on mixed categories.)
It goes like this. You start with the undeniably grammatical construction a kind of, as in (1), where a kind of takes a noun phrase as its argument (e.g., awful torture):
(1) The trip to Irvine was a kind of awful torture.
(1′) I knowe that sorte of men ryght well [attested 1560]
This construction was in the language by Middle English, as shown by (1′). The next step (which I for one consider grammatical as well) is to let a kind of modify an adjective, yielding a sentence like (2):
(2) The trip to Irvine was a kind of fun – namely, the bad kind.
(2′) Its a fine ewnin but its a sort a caad 
This was in place in the language by the start of the 19th century, although it may have been somewhat colloquial then, and has seemed to have died out in most dialects by now. After all, it’s an unstable transition state, an adverb with an article, so it’s no surprise that people would want to stabilize it. There’s two options: either revert to an adjective, which gets us right back to square (1), or drop the article. People started to drop the article by the mid-19th century, so that a kind of, which converts an adjective (e.g., fun) to a noun phrase (a kind of fun), becomes an pure adverb that merely modifies an adjective, as in (3):
(3) The trip to Irvine was kind of fun. I did get to see the widest highway segment in the U.S.
(3′) I was kind of provoked at the way you came up 
You dang kids! Always ruining the language with your archaisms! Maybe the kids today do hedge their statements a lot, and maybe kind of and sort of are in part to blame. But they’ve got nearly two hundred years of usage by people like you and me and Dickens to draw these phrases from, and to justify their usage. So maybe everyone ought to give them a pass.
Summary: kind of and sort of aren’t new things that only kids say. They were derived over time from the unquestionably acceptable usage a kind of X, where X can be just about any noun. In their current usage, kind/sort of have been around for almost 200 years, and even back then were being written as kind o’ and kinda as well. And no less a personage than Charles Dickens (see usage 14d) used it in his writing. Perhaps they are informal, but they’re not ungrammatical.