Till vs. Until

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Isn’t the shortened version of until spelled ’til, not til or till?

I know that till is a word (I worked as a grocery store cashier as a teenager), so I understand why it doesn’t get flagged by spellcheck when some writers incorrectly shorten the word until as till.

Many speakers believe that the till in such expressions as “Till death do us part” and “Till the end of Time” should be written ’til, as if it were a shortened version of until.

In fact, till is not a shortening of until. It is a freestanding word that can be used as a preposition and as a conjunction in the same ways as until. Both words are documented with the sense of “up to the time of” as early as the 1300s.

Till is more common in speech and until in writing, but both have been used interchangeably by generations of writers.

Shakespeare uses both in All’s Well That Ends Well (c.1604):

Go, tell the Count Rousillon, and my brother,
We have caught the woodcock, and will keep him muffled
Till we do hear from them.

Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.

Dickens uses both till and until in Great Expectations (1861):

I was not expected till to-morrow; but I had my keys, and, if Herbert were gone to bed, could get to bed myself without disturbing him.

Until she opened the side entrance, I had fancied, without thinking about it, that it must necessarily be night-time.

George Orwell does it in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

The new ration did not start till tomorrow and he had only four cigarettes left.

Very likely the confessions had been rewritten and rewritten until the original facts and dates no longer had the smallest significance.

The form ’til is a fairly recent invention, created by writers in the mistaken belief that spoken till is a shortening of until and should therefore be written with an apostrophe for the missing syllable un-.

Bottom line: Till is a perfectly good English word. ’Til is nonstandard.

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