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I recently got a message that says

Haven't heard anything from you in a while.

I always thought that the right way to say this would be to use for insdead of in. Are both versions correct? Would there be a difference in meaning?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I'm trying to capture a vague idea floating in my head. Not sure I can explain adequately.

First off, both "in a while" and "for a while" are grammatical and idiomatic per se. However, to me, "for a while" would mean that their hearing from you is an ongoing process, which you interrupted for some time — or well, for a while —, but then resumed. Which is not what the sentence is supposed to express.

What you want instead is "in a while", which also means "for some period of time" but without implying that the contact has been re-established already, or indeed ever will be. Which is the whole point of that sentence, after all. It's just a reminder that it should be.

So I would most definitely say, "Haven't heard anything from you in a while".

This might be just my dialect/idiolect, though. I haven't checked any corpora.

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1  
For what it's worth, I have exactly the same vague idea floating in my head. –  Marthaª May 12 '13 at 15:59
1  
So, as I understand, if I wrote to someone after a long period of time, then I would most likely get "haven't heard from you for a while" in reply. On the other hand, if it was the other person who initiated the correspondence, he will probably write "haven't heard from you in a while", because he wonders why I haven't got in touch with him for so long. In fact, that was the case with me. –  msgmaxim May 12 '13 at 20:23
    
The “vague idea” is because for a while specifies a limited time period. If I haven't heard from you for a month, then the period is over – but it's ambiguous whether it's the silence ending, or just the month. –  Bradd Szonye May 13 '13 at 4:01

The sentence you give should be:

"Haven't heard anything from you in a while."
or
"Haven't heard anything from you for a while."

No difference in meaning in this case, at least, not to my knowledge in American English, and not in my idiolect. But there would in these cases:

I'll give this to you in a while. [Not now, but maybe tonight or next week.]
I'll give this to you for a while. [You can have it for a week or maybe a month, but then I want it back.]

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The distinction between for Duration and in Duration depends on where the Reference Time is. Reference time is an Instant in time, not a Duration; but Duration is measured from it.

  • In Duration refers to a time period Duration long that ends at the Reference Time
  • For Duration refers to a time period Duration long that begins at the Reference Time.
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How does this apply to the example, and are you suggesting "for a while" cannot begin before "now" in the example (surely not?)? –  Cerberus May 12 '13 at 20:59
    
According to Google Books estimated results, "haven't seen him for years" is actually somewhat more common than "haven't seen him in years" - but that's a different context, where they must mean the same thing anyway. John concisely summarises the distinction for contexts such as "We'll stop in/for ten minutes" –  FumbleFingers May 12 '13 at 21:33
1  
@ John: Just a wild guess, but might it be that in "haven't seen him for/in years", the "Reference Time" is actually years ago, when he was last seen. And that this in/for distinction only applies when the Reference Time is now or in the future, not in the past? –  FumbleFingers May 12 '13 at 21:38
    
@FF: Yes, that's right. Reference time is the time being referred to by the speaker, which may be now or some past or future time, and which may or may not be obvious to the listener when the sentence begins, depending on what the context is. The listener can discover this by observing tenses and adverbs, among other things. It's the same concept that one uses to understand the past perfect. Chuck Fillmore explains this all nicely in his lecture on Time from the Deixis Lectures. –  John Lawler May 13 '13 at 14:07

Correct Standard English dictates:

  • the use of for for duration — "for a length of time", "for seven days", etc.
  • the use of in (= "shortly") for pending future action only
  • We shall see each other for a long time/for seven days.
  • We shall see each other in two days' time/in a short while.

If the action or non-action belongs in the past and continues in the present, then it is more fluent Standard English to use for:

I haven't seen you for a while/for a long time.
[= It has been a while/a long time since I saw you.]

If the action belongs in the future, then, and only then, is "in a while" correct.

Therefore:

  • I have not heard from you for a while.

    — past

  • I shall not hear from you in a while.

    — future

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These phrases have similar meanings. They are not usually interchangeable, but there's one exception.

for a while

This phrase indicates a limited, continuous time period. If you go on vacation for a week, you will be gone continuously until a week has passed and then return.

not for a while

If you won't return from vacation for a week, you will be absent for a week and then return. This usage implies a definite end to the period, although the exact timing may be vague (a while).

haven't for a while

If you haven't seen him for a week, then he was absent for that duration. Because for indicates a limited time, this often implies that the absence has ended (as RegDwighт suggests). However, when talking about a fixed time leading up to the present, it may simply note that the time period has ended, not the action.

in a while

This phrase indicates a time some distance away – usually, but not always, in the future. If you go on vacation in a week, you will not leave until a week from now.

not in a while

If you won't return from vacation in a week, then you will still be gone a week from now, with no indication of when you will actually return. This usage typically indicates a deviation from plans or expectations: We can't get the job done in a month.

haven't in a while

If you haven't seen him in a week, then he disappeared a week before now. This usage indicates a time some distance in the past. There is no implication that the period has ended.

TL;DR

For the example in the question, haven't for a while and haven't in a while are roughly interchangeable. For carries a weak implication that the absence has ended; in does not.

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