Till, ‘Til, Til or Until? Which is right?

by Dax MacGregor
I was sure that till meant breaking up dirt; that until meant "up to the time of"; and, when people shortened until in speech, you wrote it as 'til - or maybe just til. But, after a little research, I learned I had it wrong.

Recently, I critiqued a submission for our weekly writer’s group meeting. I found an obvious error in this sentence: “I’ll be in the office till noon.”

Till is something you do to the ground, I thought, as I changed till to until.

After a moment, it occurred to me that, since the word appeared as spoken dialogue, maybe it should be written as ’til. The more I thought about it, I swore I’d seen til used without the apostrophe. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure about the whole thing.

I stopped critiquing and started researching.

It turns out, I was flat-out wrong from the start.

The first of these words to appear in English literature was till. It appeared around the year 800. Until doesn’t show up until around 1200 – created by appending the prefix und (meaning up to) to till.

That means that ’til is improper, since till was the original word.

I also learned that til is not a real word.

In summary, here are the rules:

Till is technically the most accurate.

Until is an acceptable (and more common) alternative.

‘Til should be avoided.

Til is not a real word.

Sources:

  • Dictionary.com’s entry for till.
  • The Maven’s Word of the Day for June 5, 1998 at RandomHouse.com
  • World Wide Words post titled Until, Till and ‘Til.

Comments

5 Comments

  1. Dean F. Wilson

    Good post and points.

    I agree that Till is technically the older word, but older words aren’t necessarily what is ‘correct’ nowadays. For example, the older version of ‘only’ was ‘onely’ (which explains its meaning very well and also explains how we got the pronunciation ‘ownly’).

    Words change throughout the generations and what was correct can become archaic. This applies for modern inventions like ‘tonite’, even though I cringe at things like that. However, we have to recognise that it’s just part and parcel of a growing language and has happened throughout history (I intend to blog about this very topic).

    So, for modern times, ‘until’ is most correct and ”til’ is the appropriate condensed form. ’til’ is definitely wrong either way and I hate seeing it in books or articles.

    I’m enjoying your blog – keep it up!

    -D

    Reply
  2. Dax MacGregor

    Dean,

    Of course, you are right. Until is the word to use for common speech.

    Till should be reserved for special occasions like, “We snuggled on the blanket under starlit skies and watched the meteor storm till dawn.”

    Thanks for the words of encouragement and for taking time to comment.

    Reply
  3. Dean F. Wilson

    Personally I’d pick one or the other and stick with it so as not to jar the reader.

    -D

    Reply
  4. John

    I recently received a tattoo that reads till death, it seems that everyone loves to jump on the oppurnity to let me know that it is spelled incorrectly, As it should be ’til. It is becoming exhausting having to correct everyone! Thanks for clearing that up.

    Reply
  5. Joyce Seabolt

    I lookded this up because my husband tried to use til in a Scrabble game and I challanged it. Til was a word in the Scrabble dictionary but it did not mean until as he thought..

    Reply

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