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What part of speech is while in "We will rest for a while."?

My teacher says while is a noun, but I feel that it is an adverb, as it comes as an answer to the question "We will rest for how much time?"

Can you explain why it is a noun and not an adverb?

  • Please try to use specific question titles. "Parts of Speech" doesn't ask anything in particular, and it could apply to all sorts of questions, so it probably won't help people find your question in the future. – snailboat Aug 15 '18 at 0:15
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    I am a newbie user, I'll know the intricacies of the manner of asking questions on Stack Exchange with time. Thank you for the edit. – Shreya Varshney Aug 15 '18 at 0:18
  • I'm glad to hear it. Welcome to EL&U! – snailboat Aug 15 '18 at 0:33
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Others have already explained why "while" is a noun, but I think something should also be said about your reason for thinking it's adverb, namely that it answers the question "for how much time". The problem with that reason is that the answer to this question is not "while" but rather "for a while". And indeed "for a while" is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb, i.e., modifying the verb "rest". So your intuition about an adverb isn't completely wrong, but what plays the role of an adverb here is not the single word "while" but the whole phrase "for a while".

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To figure out which lexical class ("part of speech") a word belongs to, we can look at several things:

  1. What sort of constituent does the word belong to?
  2. What is its function within that constituent?
  3. Does this word have a determiner, modifiers, or complements?
  4. Is this word marked morphologically as belonging to a specific class?

In other words, what does it mean for a word to be a noun, a verb, or anything else? It has to mean something, or we wouldn't bother labeling it. We put words into categories so we can say something useful about them, what they do, what other words do with them, or what shapes they have.

In this case, the word appears to belong to a noun phrase:

  1. A while is the complement of the preposition for, which commonly takes noun phrases as complements.
  2. A while has the shape of a noun phrase, with a determiner (a), and a head (while). Adverbs don't generally take determiners.
  3. A while can also take adjectival, but not adverbial, modification: a long while but not *a quickly while.

The shape of a word can also be useful. When you see a word ending in -ly, your first thought is probably that it's an adverb, particularly if it has an adjective as a base. Of course, this isn't always the case (lively), but that's why we try to look at as much as evidence as possible.

In English, word shape tends to be a less reliable indicator than in many languages, but it's still useful. For nouns, we want to focus on the inflections the word can take; while is rarely plural, but you will occasionally hear native speakers say things like "just a few whiles ago", so it's not entirely out of the question, either. Inflecting like a noun is another strong suggestion that while is a noun.

In this case, all the evidence points pretty strongly in the direction of while being a noun.

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There is a reason some people are teachers and others are students. Your teacher is correct.

Consider this:

We will rest for an hour.

Is hour an adverb?

From the Oxford Dictionaries, here is the relevant definition of while:

while

NOUN

  1. A period of time.

    ‘we chatted for a while’
    ‘she retired a little while ago’

    1.1 a while For some time.

    ‘can I keep it a while?’

If you need more explanation than your teacher is willing to provide then a) consider finding another teacher (it's their job to teach and most teachers are happy to help their students understand) and b) consider turning to authoritative references like the Oxford Dictionaries or Dictionary.com.

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