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June 5, 1998

till, until, 'til(l)

Matthew Amster-Burton writes:
Something about the word "till" (as in "until") makes me uncomfortable, even though my dictionary says it's legit. Which came first, the "till" or the "until," and when did "'til" come into the picture?

Not only is till legit, it's more legit than until.

Well, maybe that's a bit extreme. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with till, which is earlier than, and thus not a shortening of, until. The use of 'til (or 'till) is one of the few things that really drives me crazy (even though it can be defended as well).

The first word to consider is till, a preposition meaning 'up to the time of' or 'before', or as a conjunction meaning 'up to the time that or when', and having various similar meanings. Till first appears in English in the ninth century in the sense 'to' (now chiefly Scottish). It is from Old Norse til 'to'.

The word until is formed from the obsolete prefix un- 'up to' (not related to the familiar negative prefix un-) and till; it is thus redundant. It is first found in the twelfth century.

Without getting into too much detail, till and until are effectively interchangeable in modern use. Until is sometimes considered more formal, and till is less frequent at the beginning of sentences. But both are undeniably correct.

The form 'til(l) should be considered an error. It is attested since the 1920s, and is not infrequent, particularly in unedited sources. It can also be defended by saying that it is, or at least can be considered to be, a shortening of until, and thus the apostrophe is OK. The two most recent examples in our files are: "Friends 'Til the End" (gigantic page 1 headline in the New York Post) and "Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can...yadda, yadda, yadda" (Subway ad for Kelloggs's Smart Start cereal; ellipsis in original). However, since the impetus behind 'til(l) seems mainly to be that the writer thinks that till is wrong, which it isn't, there's no reason to defend it. Till doesn't need an apostrophe to make it OK.


A number of people wrote in with a comment about Wednesday's question, about the opposite of "misogyny." I have added a clarification to that entry.

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