Arrant Pedantry

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Till Kingdom Come

The other day on Twitter, Bryan A. Garner posted, “May I ask a favor? Would all who read this please use the prep. ‘till’ in a tweet? Not till then will we start getting people used to it.” I didn’t help out, partly because I hate pleas of the “Repost this if you agree!” variety and partly because I knew it would be merely a symbolic gesture. Even if all of Garner’s followers and all of their followers used “till” in a tweet, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar of usage.

But it did get me thinking about the word till and the fact that a lot of people seem to regard it as incorrect and forms like 'til as correct. The assumption for many people seems to be that it’s a shortened form of until, so it requires an apostrophe to signal the omission. Traditionalists, however, know that although the two words are related, till actually came first, appearing in the language about four hundred years before until.

Both words came into English via Old Norse, where the preposition til had replaced the preposition to. (As I understand it, modern-day North Germanic languages like Swedish and Danish still use it this way.) Despite their similar appearances, to and till are not related; till comes from a different root meaning ‘end’ or ‘goal’ (compare modern German Ziel ‘goal’). Norse settlers brought the word til with them when they started raiding and colonizing northeastern Britain in the 800s.

There was also a compound form, until, from und + til. Und was another Old Norse preposition deriving from the noun und, which is cognate with the English word end. Till and until have been more or less synonymous throughout their history in English, despite their slightly different forms. And as a result of the haphazard process of spelling standardization in English, we ended up with two ls on till but only one on until. The apostrophized form 'til is an occasional variant that shows up far more in unedited than edited writing. Interestingly, the OED’s first citation for 'til comes from P. G. Perrin’s An Index to English in 1939: “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.”

Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English, however, tells a slightly different story. It shows a slight increase in 'til since the mid-twentieth century, though it has been declining again slightly in the last thirty years. And keep in mind that these numbers come from a corpus of edited writing drawn from books, magazines, and newspapers. It may well be increasing much faster in unedited writing, with only the efforts of copy editors keeping it (mostly) out of print. This chart shows the relative proportions of the three forms—that is, the proportion of each compared to the total of all three.

Relative proportions of till, until, and 'til.

As Garner laments, till is becoming less and less common in writing and may all but disappear within the next century, though predicting the future of usage is always a guessing game, even with clear trends like this. Sometimes they spontaneously reverse, and it’s often not clear why. But why is till in decline? I honestly don’t know for sure, but I suspect it stems from either the idea that longer words are more formal or the perception that it’s a shortened form of until. Contractions and clipped forms are generally avoided in formal writing, so this could be driving till out of use.

Note that we don’t have this problem with to and unto, probably because to is one of the most common words in the language, occurring about 9,000 times per million words in the last decade in COHA. By comparison, unto occurs just under 70 times per million words. There’s no uncertainty or confusion about the use of spelling of to. We tend to be less sure of the meanings and spellings of less frequent words, and this uncertainty can lead to avoidance. If you don’t know which form is right, it’s easy to just not use it.

At any rate, many people are definitely unfamiliar with till and may well think that the correct form is 'til, as Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar did in this post four years ago, though he checked his facts and found that his original hunch was wrong.

He’s far from the only person who thought that 'til was correct. When my then-fiancee and I got our wedding announcements printed over eight years ago, the printer asked us if we really wanted “till” instead of “'til” (“from six till eight that evening”). I told him that yes, it was right, and he kind of shrugged and dropped the point, though I got the feeling he still thought I was wrong. He probably didn’t want to annoy a paying customer, though.

And though this is anecdotal and possibly falls prey to the recency illusion, it seems that 'til is on the rise in signage (frequently as ‘til, with a single opening quotation mark rather than an apostrophe), and I even spotted a til' the other day. (I wish I’d thought to get a picture of it.)

I think the evidence is pretty clear that, barring some amazing turnaround, till is dying. It’s showing up less in print, where it’s mostly been replaced by until, and the traditionally incorrect 'til may be hastening its death as people become unsure of which form is correct or even become convinced that till is wrong and 'til is right. I’ll keep using till myself, but I’m not holding out hope for a revival. Sorry, Garner.

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Want to Help a Grad Student with His Research?

As you may know, I’m a grad student currently working on my master’s thesis. I’m examining usage changes made by copy editors and how they shape standard written English. I’ve been able to get my hands on about two dozen edited manuscripts, marked with Word’s Track Changes feature, but the editors are student interns here at my university, and I’d like to get a better sample.

Here’s where you, dear reader, come in. I’d like some volunteers to edit the original versions of these manuscripts and then send them back to me with their changes tracked. Edited for simplicity: For the purposes of this study, I’m mostly interested in grammar and usage, so it should be more of a copy edit than a content or substantive edit.

But to keep my results relevant, I’d like my volunteers to be professional editors. I would also like them to be native English speakers who edit for American audiences. If you fit the criteria and wouldn’t mind editing a 20–30-page article (for science!), please read the following informed consent information and send me an email through the contact form below. Edited to add: The important part is familiarity with editing for an American audience. If you’re from outside the US but have experience editing for a North American audience, feel free to participate.

Addendum: A couple of people have asked about deadlines, so I thought I’d better clarify. I’d like edited manuscripts returned by the end of this month if possible, but that’s not a firm deadline; I plan on defending next April, so it will probably be okay if they keep coming in over the next few months. If I need to close the survey, I will post an update here.

Informed Consent

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effect of editing on standard written English. The results will be analyzed in aggregate to determine the affect of editing on standard written English.

Procedure

After you submit your information through the contact form below, you will be emailed an unedited paper selected at random from my collection of manuscripts. Using Word’s Track Changes feature, please edit for usage and grammar but not for content. The survey will look at spelling and stylistic variation but not at simple spelling errors or punctuation changes. When you are through editing the paper, please return it to me via the email address from which you received the paper.

Benefits

The results of this study will contribute to our understanding of the selection and codification processes of standard written English.

Risks

There are no risks involved with this study.

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Participation in this study is completely voluntary. You may withdraw at any time.

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There is no financial compensation for participation in this study.

Confidentiality

No personal identifying information will be collected for this survey. Email addresses will be used only to distribute and collect manuscripts for the survey and to contact you in the event of technical problems. Email addresses will not be sold, given out, published, or used for any other purposes.

Contact for Questions

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact me through the regular contact form here. If you would like to be notified of the results when the survey is complete, please include a note to that effect when you return your edited manuscript.

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