Is ’til a Contraction of Until?

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A curious request for a post has come across my desk:

Please discuss the misuse of “till” for the contraction “’til”.

The best place to begin is with the term contraction.

As applied to speech, a contraction is the contracting or shortening of a word or a syllable by omitting or combining some elements.

For example, info is a contracted form of information. ID is a contracted form of the word identification.

In writing, a contraction is formed by substituting a single syllable for one or more letters.

Common written contractions and their complete forms include the following:

aren’t—are not
it’s—it is

In each example, the symbol of the apostrophe replaces one or more letters.

Now for the reader’s request. (I’ll use italics to make the contraction clearer):

Please discuss the misuse of till for the contraction ‘til.

As I understand the statement, the reader is suggesting that people who write till really ought to write ‘til.

Of the two—till and ‘til—the form ‘til (presumably a contraction for the word until) is the interloper.

Back when English-speakers lived cheek by jowl with speakers of Old Norse, we borrowed such intimate vocabulary as the pronouns they and their. That’s when the ON word til came into English with the meaning to, as in, “I’m going til [to] Iceland.”

English already had the preposition to, so ON til eventually (fourteenth century) took on the temporal meaning it has now: “So it will be till [until] the end of time.” It also began to be spelled with a double l (till, tille, tyll).

The un of until also came into English from Old Norse, with the meaning “as far as, up to.” For example, “He went until [as far as to] his inn.” By the 1300s, until was also being used in the context of time: “His family has owned that land until [up to] this day.” Sometimes, until was also spelled untill, un-til, and un-tille.

Fast-forward five hundred years and the birth of the late-blooming “contraction” ‘til.

As far as I can tell, ‘til is the invention of lesser nineteenth-century poets who needed a one-syllable form of until and didn’t know that they already had one in till.

Today ‘til is ubiquitous.

What do the authorities say about the use of ‘til instead of till or until?

AP Stylebook
till Or until. But not ‘til.

Garner’s Modern English Usage
. . . the incorrect ‘til: has no literary history as a contraction. Not until the 1980s was it widely perceived to be one.

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.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
. . . until and till can be used freely and interchangeably, but you will probably want to avoid ’till and use ’til advisedly.

The OED provides a non-judgmental entry: ‘til Variation of till prep., conj. or short for until prep. and conj.

However, the usage example is rather telling:

1939 P. G. Perrin Index to Eng. 606 Till, until, (’til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since ’til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned.

That’s what I say. We may as well abandon ‘til.

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7 thoughts on “Is ’til a Contraction of Until?”

  1. Phaagh! It’s me again. My uncle was a farmer. Did he ’til or until the ground? (If the latter, he wasn’t much of a farmer.)
    Thanks very much for your answer to my question.
    — J

  2. Jerry Ketcherside,
    Your uncle tilled the ground.
    Several words with different origins are spelled “till.” Here are three commonly encountered:
    till (verb) to cultivate
    till (noun) drawer or money box
    till (noun) stiff clay; sediment left behind by glacial drift

  3. I’m sticking with ’til ’til the end. Till is a whole nother word and has a big job. ‘Til has only one little job and it does it quite well, I think.

  4. This one was quite helpful to me because I was never sure if I was using the correct spelling because I grew up in grocery stores and a cash register was referred to as “a till.” As in, “Close out your till and go restock the beer cooler.” We almost never called them cash registers. because of this I tried to avoid the word till and just used until.

  5. This question is what’s called a non-issue.
    It’s really very simple.
    Till, ’til and until mean the same thing. ‘Til is a shortened form of until, and till is a word meaning until.
    Users of the language may indulge in whichever form of the word fits their stylistic, linguistic or word space intentions.

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