Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 72: Until or Till

This week on Grammar Grater, our topic is inspired by a message from Patricia, a listener in Orlando, Fla. Patricia writes:
"I was certain proper use of the contraction for the word until is 'til; however, I often see it spelled till. I thought that was a money drawer. Can you please clear this up? It will drive me crazy 'til I know! Thanks."

It turns out the word till—meaning until—has a long and storied history.

According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, the word till was first documented in the English language in roughly the year 1200, in a manuscript called The Ormulum. Written by a monk named Orm, a common name in England at that time, The Ormulum explains Christian teaching on each of the texts used in the mass throughout the church calendar.

The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains that this word till—meaning until—was already quite old by the time it appeared in The Ormulum. Till developed from Old English sometime before the year 800 and was borrowed from a Scandinavian source. In fact, the word till persists in Scandinavian languages—specifically Danish, Swedish and Icelandic—and means to or until.

As for using the word till in English, author Michael Quinion says that
"Till is perfectly good English and the choice of whether to use it or until is often decided by the rhythm of the sentence."

As our listener Patricia points out, the word till can also be a noun, meaning a money drawer. The Oxford English Dictionary corroborates this, adding of course, that till can also be a verb, meaning to plough.

The word until is also quite old, but not as old as till. Until dates to the Middle English period (1066 to the mid-1500s). Until found its way into Middle English through the contraction of two Scandinavian syllables—un and till—that meant the same thing.

Going back to Patricia's question about contracting until to 'til, we found an entry for 'til in the Oxford English Dictionary. Not surprisingly, the OED defines 'til as short for until.

But just because a word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't mean it's warmly received or is in standard use. The first print citation of 'til used by the OED is from 1939, and is from Porter G. Perrin's Writer's Guide and Index to English, in which Perrin recommended:
"Since 'til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned."

The book Garner's Modern American Usage takes an even stronger position on it. Before we look at what Bryan A. Garner writes, however, you may recall that in Grammar Grater episode 21, we defined the editors' term sic as a handy Latin word that appears after a misspelled word in a publication. With that reminder, here's what Garner has to say about 'til:
"If a form deserves a sic, it's the incorrect 'til. Worse yet is 'till, which is abominable."

Patricia O'Connor, in her book Woe Is I, has this to say:
"Until and till: Either of these is correct, but not 'til."

Our friend Michael Quinion takes a more measured approach. He says,
"It has often been said by style guides and dictionaries that ['til is] a mistake and it arouses passion in some people. Most recent writers on language prefer to describe it as an informal version of until — it often turns up in newspapers, advertising and song lyrics, for example, and in informal set phrases like 'shop 'til you drop', 'It ain't over 'til it's over' or ''Til we meet again'. But to use the spelling til without the preceding apostrophe is still regarded as wrong."

The research upholds that until and till are generally accepted. As for 'til, always make sure to use the apostrophe—and because the word is not warmly accepted in all quarters, handle it with care.

Sources: The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart; Oxford English Dictionary; Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner; Woe is I by Patricia O'Connor; plus the online resources The Ormulum Project by Professor Nils-Lennart Johannesson, and Michael Quinion's World Wide Words.

Music from this Episode: "Till the End of Time" by DeVotchKa; "Till We Meet Again" by Vernon Dalhart and Gladys Price; "Handle With Care" by the Traveling Wilburys

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