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Instinctively I wrote "wile away the hours", but on reflection that didn't seem right, given what "wile" is usually taken to mean. Then again, "while away" doesn't seem to make much sense either.

Which usage is correct, and why?

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If you're ever unsure which phrase is right, google's ngram viewer is wonderful:… . "Wile away" has almost no use. – Jeremy Sep 7 '11 at 10:34
Almost no use, apart from Dickens in Bleak House: "the superannuated Mr and Mrs Smallweed wile away the rosy hours". – Paul R Oct 22 at 15:04

2 Answers 2

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Authors Ally

The Macquarie dictionary defines ‘while away’ as to cause time to pass, especially in some easy or pleasant manner, so ‘while away’ is correct in this context. ‘Wile’ means to beguile, lure or entice, so to ‘wile away’ could mean something entirely different, but the actual answer is that both are correct. See these examples: while away, to cause (time) to pass, especially in some easy or pleasant manner (usually followed by away); wile away, to spend or pass (time), especially in a leisurely or pleasurable fashion.

Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage somewhat disagrees with above statement

The expression “while away the time” is the only surviving context for a very old use of “while” as a verb meaning “to spend time.” Many people substitute “wile,” but to wile people is to lure or trick them into doing something—quite different from simply idling away the time. Even though dictionaries accept “wile away” as an alternative, it makes more sense to stick with the original expression.

I'd say, you will be better off sticking to original while away the hours since it IS correct and can't be misinterpreted.

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Webster's 1913… credits Tennyson with the term 'while away'… – Wayfaring Stranger Sep 8 '14 at 14:04

As a publisher/editor of poetry - the double entendre of "wile" is tempting. One may "wile away time" in a fashion whereby one "tricks" time to pass quickly, or, to make time pass slowly - like to draw out a moment of lovemaking to feel like an hour of pleasure.

It is the artful and unfettered use of words and language that, in my opinion - gives the poet the freedom to explore variations on a theme. While you were reading this I was wiling away time.

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Your comment will warm the cockles of my heart when I read "could of" and "must of" in some of my students' reports. – The Frog Jun 3 '14 at 0:33

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