Of untils, tills, ‘tills, tils and ‘tils (Mistake #11)

I suppose it had to happen. Not that I considered myself immune – far from it. But mine’s a daft mistake – and it’s one that I’ve been making for some years. Worse: I’ve been inflicting it pretty much exclusively on my poor students. As if they’ve not suffered enough.

The word “till” is an acceptable synonym for “until”. So says Bill Bryson, in his brilliant book, Troublesome Words. So says the BBC World Service, and every style guide and thesaurus I can be bothered to check online. Most authoritatively, so says the Oxford English Dictionary.

However your blogger, fool that he is, has been saying just the opposite. Indeed, I’ve been striking through any incidence of “till” and replacing it with “until” on my students’ papers since the dawn of day one, having always assumed “till” to be a semi-literate man’s choice of preposition or subordinating conjunction, tolerable in speech but unfit for print. Repeat ‘offenders’ would earn themselves an “until!” by their third misdemeanour, and come the fifth or sixth a shouty “UNTIL!”, quite possibly underscored with double-lined exasperation.

Oh I really am very very sorry.

This, I guess, is a Mistake Tutors Make (there’s a vengeful blog in the making…). Actually, it’s probably a Mistake Tutor Makes, because I suspect there is only one who has thus erred, that one is transparently me, and it would be unfair to tarnish by association the good names of my colleagues, such as Penny or Sue or those whose sites you can find by referring to Writing Blogs on the right, and to whom I wouldn’t now blame you for turning and remaining turned.

If you’re still with me, the Mistake Writers Make, albeit only occasionally in my experience, is to write “til”. Either that or they introduce an incongruous apostrophe – ie ’til or ’till. I’ll defer to BB on this latter pair: “The second two are illiterate.”

Not to detract from my contrition, but I can’t stop strongly preferring “until”, and I can’t pretend to be fond of “till”, which still looks sloppy and slangy to my evidently snobby eye. But I’ll obviously accept it when I come across it, and try to come to like it a bit in time. It’d be the least it deserves: etymologically, “till” predates “until”.

Meanwhile, the microwave has pinged and nuked humble pie beckons. Till next time, folks… till next time.

Comments 6

  • Hi

    Oh 'till just looks lazy. Till is where a shop owner puts the cash. Till is raking over the soil.

    Sorry. As you say it's acceptable but it's still ('till?) ugly and lazy. It may predate until but until is progress.


    Take care

  • I have to agree with Old Kitty! I say "till", but I write "until".

  • Hi Alex

    You are not the only tutor who does this – I do too. I hate the word 'till' as an abbreviation of 'until' (unless it's dialogue, then I will accept it as a character trait). Having spent 8 years working for Barclays Bank, I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at a cashier's till. So, whenever I see the word 'till' I begin to remember the nightmares of having to balance my till at the end of the day.

    My dictionary, The New Penguin Dictionary, says that 'until' is more formal, whereas 'till' is slang. And I always recommend amending any slang words. (Unless, of course, the target market uses slang … which in my experience is rare.)

    Until next time then, my friend!



  • Ha – 'until is progress' I like!

  • "Till death do us part" – the most famous and the only use "till" I consider acceptable… but again, what do I know, English being only my second language…

  • What's with the scorn for " 'til " exactly? When used in dialogue or for a particular voice I've always tended to go for this – it seems to me to be a logical contraction, apostrophe and all. If anything I'd have said the extra 'l' in 'till' was incongruous. If anyone could oblige with a very short summary of BB's take on it, I'd be very grateful.

    Having said that, the post re: "Till death do us part" raises an interesting point. I wonder which way this example is officially rendered…

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