February 27, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: till or until

Posted in till, until tagged at 6:05 am by dlseltzer

Tip: till or until

A reader writes:

I’m curious about this term in a scientific manuscript. I came across this sentence in a manuscript that I am reviewing in the discussion section. My first impulse was, ‘really’? Interested in your thoughts as to whether this should be used in formal writing.

 Up till now there are no clear guidelines for reporting…

As always, love the blog!!

 Frankly, I think your first impulse was far too mild. Mine was, “You have got to be kidding me. No way!”

Of course, that was until/till I did a little research. And then, was I shocked!

First, I consulted my usual comrade-in-arms, Bryan Garner, and he gave me the first of my series of shocks for the day! He said this:

Till is, like until, a bona fide preposition and conjunction. Although less formal than until, till is neither colloquial or substandard.

Say what? It’s okay to use ’till’? It’s actually a word? Heaven forfend. I needed more ammunition. So I looked at Dictionary.com, and that’s when I got my second jolt. The first definition was this:



1. up to the time of; until: to fight till death.

ZAP! Another bolt strikes.

Hmmm. I’m sensing a pattern. So, I consulted Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English Usage, and he had this to say: 


Since it looks like an abbreviation for “until,” some people argue that this word should always be spelled “’til” (though not all insist on the apostrophe). However, “till” has regularly occurred as a spelling of this word for over 800 years; it’s actually older than “until.” It is perfectly good English.

 Ouch! Okay, I thought, I’ll go to the big man, himself. I’ll consult H. W. Fowler. And, sadly, I found this:

till, until. The first is the usual form.

 No help at all from Mr. Fowler. But, he added under a discussion of ‘until’:

 When the clause or phrase [using ’till’ or ‘until’] precedes the main sentence, until is perhaps actually the commoner (until his accession he had been unpopular).

Okay, just a little bit of a sting.

You got me. ‘Till’ is a word. But as Garner says it is an informal word, and you should NEVER use it in a scientific manuscript. The reader’s example should read:

Up until now there are no clear guidelines for reporting…

Actually, it should really be:

Up until now, there have been no clear guidelines for reporting…

‘Till’  may be a word, but in our formal writing, I’ll correct it every time.

But this story has a silver lining. After consulting all of the sources I cited, I decided to see what my language usage superhero, William Safire, had to say, if anything, about the till/until conundrum. So I googled ‘Safire till/until’ and found to my delight that he didn’t think ’till’ was a word either! I knew I loved the man (only with respect to his language prowess, definitely not his politics). His search was a bit like my own:

HAND IN THE TILL by William Safire for the New York Times

When identifying myself with disappointed Chicago Cubs supporters this fall, I reached back into baseball’s linguistic history and trotted out the upbeat lament of old-time Brooklyn Dodger fans: ”Wait’ll next year.”

Jack Cushman, an editor here, poked his head into my office to say that he associated himself with the sentiment but would not have abbreviated it that way. But that was the way it sounded, I argued: the ‘ll stood for until . We reached for The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage on ’til : ”Do not use except in quoting a written or printed source. But till ” — that’s with no preceding apostrophe and with two l ‘s — ”is largely interchangeable with until .”

When shown to be mistaken, I demand a second opinion. The 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (in its most complete revision in a generation and well worth the $55 investment) usually bails me out of such sinking sensations, but there was an admonition under the till entry: ”This is a perfectly good preposition and conjunction. It is not a contraction of until and should not be written ’till .”

Desperate for a permissiveness fix, I turned to Dr. Roundheels himself, E. Ward Gilman, in Merriam-Webster’s indispensable Dictionary of English Usage. ”What ’till is, unarguably,” he argues with uncharacteristic certitude, ”is a variant spelling of till used by writers who do not know that till is a complete, unabbreviated word in its own right.”

I thought it was an abbreviation for until. So, I suspect, did Theodore Dreiser, Ogden Nash and George Orwell, all users of wait’ll , though they may have wanted only to reflect a spoken sound in written form with absolute accuracy. There is a clear difference in the sound of the title of the song ”Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” and the transcription of an embarrassed mother’s admonition, ”Wait’ll I get you home,” or in my writing of what I heard in Ebbets Field as ”Wait’ll next year.”

That’s from William Safire. I feel so much better.



  1. Chris said,

    You should visit the UK, where “till” is commonly used.
    The Oxford dictionary says the following: “Till is generally felt to be more informal than until and is used much less often in writing. At the beginning of a sentence, until is usually used.”

  2. nickfielden said,

    Having established that ’till’ is not improper when written, although ‘until’ is to be preferred, you do not explain why ‘up’ is necessary. Since either ’till’ or ‘until’ can stand alone, the use of ‘up’ adds no further meaning and the word is at best superfluous, if not tautologous. Should it not be omitted?

    At the risk of being accused of pedantry, I would like to challenge the expression, ‘…there are no clear guidelines…’. I was taught that if something is absent, it cannot be described in the plural; that the
    singular noun is the correct form, it being closer to zero. I would therefore write the sentence thus: ‘Until (or till) now there exists no clear guideline for reporting…’.

    To be frank, I would prefer, ‘Presently, there exists no clear guideline for reporting…’, which is stylistically better and avoids the till/until controversy entirely.

    • dlseltzer said,

      You are right about ‘up.’ I was so focused on ’till’ that i missed it. A few readers did not. Thanks.

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