Until, till, ’til, and…’till?

Until, till, ’til, ’till…do you know which one doesn’t belong? Of these four words, three mean pretty much the same thing while one isn’t accepted as a proper word by most sources.

If you were to ask a sample of people on the street about these words (and I don’t recommend that you do), it’s very likely that the information you’d accumulate would go something like this:

  • until is the proper form
  • till is an informal form or a contraction of until
  • ’til and ’till are shortened, contracted, forms of until

There’s just enough truth there to be dangerous, but a lot of those ‘facts’ would be wrong.

Until and till are both correct forms, with essentially the same meaning (there’s room to quibble…but let’s not). While most people believe (or would guess) that till is a derivative form of until, it’s actually the other way around: till has been in use since about the year 800, with until following it into the language around 1200, when the prefix was tacked on (a Viking import, by some accounts).

’til is a recognized contraction of until, but is recommended against by most guides as nonstandard or informal. Ever terse, AP‘s entire entry reads “till Or until. But not ’til.” Chicago says that until “should not be written ’til.” Garner calls ’til “incorrect.” It has a comfortable place in advertising language, however (“Open Friday and Saturday ’til 2AM!”).

Till seems to be one of those words beloved by trolls in the dark and ignorant corners of the Internet: some will cite the reversed etymology, or claim that it’s a rare word, or insist that, even though it’s equivalent to until, you can’t begin a sentence with it. All those assertions are, of course, nonsense.

I decided to post on this topic after reading, back to back, a couple of books that liberally used till and used it exclusively instead of until (as far as I noticed). When they used it in dialogue I was unconcerned: authors have the freedom to write out dialogue as they see fit. But two odd things (to me) about the use of till in both books caught my eye. First, regardless of which character was speaking, till was the only form used. If till was meant to be dialect, or a meaningful speech characteristic, it wasn’t being taken advantage of. Second, even in the non-dialogue portions (narration or description), till was always used over until.

It wasn’t lost on me that both books were written by non-American English speakers (The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, Australian; and The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, English). It does in fact seem to be true that till is more readily accepted in all settings, formal and informal, outside of the US. We Americans seem to have, through folk etymology or some sort of ungrounded hypercorrection, decided that till is too informal for proper use.

From a practical advice standpoint, I could take a laissez-faire approach and suggest that writers not care too much: go ahead and use till and until interchangeably. However, this is a case where the idea that “perception is reality” needs to be accepted. It doesn’t matter that you and I understand that the words are equivalent; it’s the perception of your audience that matters. The truth is that the perception in American English writing is that till is informal and not appropriate in most contexts. With that in mind, my advice is to favor until over till in just about every context. Don’t worry much when writing dialogue, but in all other situations, try to use until only. Enough of your audience will be bothered by till that for practical purposes you should skunk it.

That’s it for till, until, and ’til. Use the first two interchangeably, but with an awareness of the perceived formality of the writing, and use ’til only judiciously (if at all).

As for the other form mentioned at the top of this page, ’till, most if not all sources treat it with scorn. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either an incorrectly spelled form of until or an incorrectly punctuated contraction of till; or both. It’s ugly and looks ignorant no matter how you slice it. I’ll let Garner have the last word: “‘till…is abominable” [GMAU, 814].


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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