Q&A: Hand in the till

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re not stopping till we get enough…

Q: Quick question this week.
A: Sure.
Q: The word until – can it be shortened without ridicule from grammar boffins? I am not sure if ’til or till or til are viable options.
A: Good question. Every now and then, using the full until may seem too formal. In these cases, it is perfectly acceptable to lose the UN.
Q: I know they get a lot of criticism on the global stage, but surely we shouldn’t lose the UN.
A: Very funny.
Q: I really liked one of the UN Secretary-Generals – but he always made me want to drink coffee and eat naan. What was his name again?
A: Kofi Annan?
Q: Yes that was it.
A: And by the way, you need to say “Secretaries-General” when dealing with this kind of thing. We’ve discussed post-positives here previously.
Q: Can we get back on topic please?
A: Gladly! So, once you shorten until, what does it leave you with?
Q: Either till, til or ’til
A: We should eliminate til – despite being the original Old English form of the word, it is widely avoided these days.
Q: Okay.
A: Till means exactly the same thing as until. For example – “the Olympics run from 5 August until 21 August”. You could equally write, “the Olympics run from 5 August till 21 August”. Both are correct and interchangeable.
Q: Wow, really?
A: Yes. As in “Till death do us part”.
Q: So a robber could burst into a store and ask for all the money in the until?
A: No. It only works this way round.
Q: I’m thinking some might not be comfortable with till having a few other meanings on the side.
A: That’s true. In fact, Americans reportedly aren’t fans of using till. They’d rather keep it for the cash drawer or to “till the soil”.
Q: Maybe they think it’s weird that a shorter version of until has to add an extra L? Because that IS weird…
A: Actually, till was around first – and until was derived from THAT.
Q: Oh, okay. So if the Americans aren’t using till, they’re going with ’til instead?
A: Yes. They prefer to use ’til – a shortened form of until – with an apostrophe at the beginning. Macquarie Dictionary lists it as a viable option.
Q: Any warnings that come with it?
A: Yes actually. There are some potential issues with ’til – such as confusion when placed at the start of quote marks. For example, “’Til we meet again.”
Q: Yeah, it gets a bit lost in there.
A: The other issue is that typing programs will think you’re opening a quote – so will place a single open quote (which faces the other way) instead of the apostrophe… so you end up with til – when it should be ‘til. A bit clumsy.
Q: I still like it. Maybe I’ll just find a font that has a vertical apostrophe/quote mark.
A: If you prefer it, go for it. But only use one or the other (till or ’til) – using both is confusing.
Q: Okay, so to recap – use until and whichever shortened version you prefer.
A: That’s right.
Q: And if you work for Fairfax, use only until and nothing else…
A: Yes, that’s a rule in their house style – common with newspapers. It’s a matter of taste.
Q: Speaking of taste, I’m off for some of that coffee and naan…

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