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A PLAN FOR DIFFERENTIATING "AWHILE' AND "A WHILE'

A letter comes to hand from Robert Kline in Chicago. "I am staying here for a while," he writes, "or on second thought, I may be staying awhile longer. Which is it? A while? Or awhile? One word or two?"

Readers who are puzzled about the alternative spellings have plenty of company. Adverbs of time and place have been bothering writers and proofreaders since the 12th century, and the end is not in sight. Obviously we are dealing in this instance with the adjective "a" and the noun "while." Usually they're wedded. Sometimes they're separated. It is not easy to find a pattern of consistent usage, but let us try.

The New York Times often seems to be stuck on the melded version: "Maj. Brown warned that it may take awhile to make an arrest." In a review of paintings by Joan Mitchell, we learn that "it takes awhile for your eyes to adjust to their light." Columnist Richard Cohen: "After awhile, Germans became inured." Columnist Marianne Means: "Clinton can't campaign in person for Kerry for awhile." Headline in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch: "Toddler declared dead is revived awhile later." You pays your money and you takes your choice.

In his "Treasury for Word Lovers," Morton Freeman laid down a workable rule 20 years ago: Spell it as one word after a verb, two words after a preposition. By that rubric, reader Kline had it right -- he was staying awhile in Chicago, and also staying for a while.

The rule works for me, but you should be aware that Merriam-Webster characteristically opts for anarchy: "Follow your own feel for the expression, and write it as one word when that seems right and as two words when that seems right." The distinction "is not important at all."

Before dropping the topic, let me rant once more about the abuse of "while" in the sense of "although" or "because." Consider two Horrid Examples from the New York Times a year ago: "Mr. Handwerker said that while (read "although") he agreed with the reasoning behind the government's timetable, the company's engineers would find a way . . . " And in the same article: "The contractors say that while (read "because") they can move more quickly, they are pleased to operate . . . "

What about "all right" and "alright"? For a good many centuries, the two-word version was the only version. In the early 1900s, "alright" crept into newspapers and popular magazines, but it was not until 1934 that it passed through the heavenly portals of professional lexicography.

Why the wait? The language had long welcomed such respectable unions, e.g.: altogether, albeit, already, although. Theodore Dreiser put "alright" to work in his manuscript for "The Genius" (1915). James Joyce used it in Molly Bloom's interminable soliloquy (1922). It strikes me as an inoffensive melding -- even though the Associated Press Stylebook emphatically disagrees. The choice lies in a writer's ear and eye.

The many "any" words deserve some attention. Most of them give few problems: There's an obvious distinction between "Is anyone home?" and "I ask any one of you . . . " In the same way, we are not likely to stumble over "anymore" and "any more." A negative sense emerges. A discriminating grandchild balks at "any more broccoli." Toots Shor's has become so crowded, said Yogi Berra, "that nobody goes there anymore."

Speaking colloquially, if you can pronounce that adverb, "anymore" sometimes dangles in the winds of positive usage: It doesn't mean "any longer." Nowadays it can mean "nowadays." My favorite browsery, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), dates the usage from 1859 and provides contemporary examples: "We put up quite a bit of hay anymore . . . He's hard of hearing anymore."

The moral is, you must first look up the "any" and "all" words, and then spell them anyhow you wish. Or anyways you wish. All right?

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is kilpatjj@aol.com.