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A Word, Please: ‘Till,’ a roughly 1,300-year-old word, predates its more popular cousin

Book in library with old open textbook.
Because “till” isn’t a contraction or shortened form, it’s no less formal or proper than “until,” writes grammar columnist June Casagrande. The word “till,” in fact, predates until in the English language.
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I don’t see the contraction ’til much anymore. I used to see it a lot, but I suspect that ever-more-advance spell-checkers on our computers, phones and social media platforms have learned to flag or correct ’til.

Don’t see a problem with ’til? Technically, there isn’t one. In general usage, ’til is not an error. But in professionally edited writing and other formal situations, the correct single-syllable alternative to “until” has no apostrophe and takes two Ls: till.

Here’s the widely influential Associated Press Stylebook: “till. Or until. But not ’til.”

And here’s the equally influential Chicago Manual of Style: “till. This is a perfectly good preposition and conjunction (open till 10 p.m.). It is not a contraction of until and should not be written ’til.”

That bit about contractions is key. One might naturally assume that someone is just using a shortened form of “until” when he says “till.” But till doesn’t come from until at all.

“The notion that till is a short form of until is erroneous,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “Till is actually the older word, dating back to at least the 9th century.” The longer “until” didn’t show up until a few centuries later and was first recorded around 1200.

Because “till” isn’t a contraction or shortened form, it’s no less formal or proper than “until.”

“Until is often said to have a somewhat more formal quality than till and to be the more likely choice at the beginning of a sentence or clause,” Merriam’s notes. “In general, our evidence supports those observations. Note, however, that till, although less common than until, can still be perfectly at home in highly serious writing and at the beginning of a sentence.”

June Casgrande’s answer to an oft-used subject/verb disagreement may not please every reader.

So to do as the pros do, use till or until. But style guides like AP and Chicago don’t apply to everyone. If you prefer ’til, it’s still an option. If you want to make a contraction out of until by dropping the “un” and replacing it with an apostrophe, that’s a privilege enjoyed by every English speaker. You can contract anything you want. Heck, you can replace the first letter of my last name with an apostrophe if you’re so inclined, though my husband might want a word if you do.

But there’s still a way to make a mistake with ’til. When you type an apostrophe before ’til, auto-correct software programs may change your apostrophe to a single quotation mark, assuming that’s what you wanted. It’s not. You want a proper apostrophe, which is either straight or shaped a little like a backwards letter C, with the opening to the left. A single quotation mark curves the other way, like the letter C. So if you type ’til your software might change it to ‘til, which is wrong. To fix this, you can either change your autocorrect settings or use my lazier method of just typing two apostrophes then deleting the first one.

I notice this problem less and less because I notice ’til less and less. That’s a good thing because it suggests people are writing better. But it’s also a bad thing because my job is to fix writing mistakes, and every time a computer gets better at fixing writing errors, I move one step closer to obsolescence.

But if a recent experience is any indication, I won’t be out of work anytime soon. While editing a document in the Google Docs word processing program recently, I ran spell-checker. It stopped on the word till and offered a suggestion I have never heard in all my years of reading about language: til. One L, no apostrophe.

So it looks like my job is safe — at least till computers get a little smarter.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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