Q&A: The origin of “to a T”

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 throwing a T party…

Q: Hey AWC, have you heard the phrase “it was done to a T”?

A: Yes – an informal way of saying that something was done exactly or to perfection. For example, “I copied the instructions to a T” or “that suits you to a T”.

Q: Exactly. So, first up, is it a “T” or is it a “tee”.

A: Good question. The Macquarie Dictionary lists both options, as does America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary. So, these days, you’ll get away with writing it with either, however it’s widely accepted that “to a T” was the original, and preferred option.

Q: How old is it?

A: It seems to have shown up in the 1690s. And there are a few theories as to its origin.

Q: Is one of them about fitting perfectly like a T-shirt?

A: Haha, yes, that’s one theory. But it’s very easy to discount that.

Q: Discount T-shirts? Oh no, those never fit well.

A: We meant to discount the theory. You see, the term “T-shirt” is quite new – only around since 1920. It does of course get its name from the T-shape made when laying out the shirt flat. This is why a capital “T” is always correct, and not “t-shirt”.

Q: I always thought tight T-shirts would look really good on me. But I couldn’t pull them off.

A: Groan.

Q: They were size XS, so I offered to donate them to my psychic friend. But she told me she was a medium.

A: Okay, please stop now.

Q: So it’s not related to T-shirts. What about something more precise, like a T-square?

A: Ahhh, nice guess. A T-square is used to rule straight parallel lines at right angles. Architects, artists and builders might use them. And yes, they are all about being precise. There’s just one small problem. 

Q: Let me guess. They’re made in the same factory as the T-shirts?

A: Um, no. But it’s a similar issue, in that just like the shirts, T-squares were also invented around 1785 – at least a century after the phrase was first in use.

Q: Hmmm, so without much difficul-T, and with all certain-T, we have it on good authori-T that we can disregard its validi-T.

A: That’s the reali-T.

Q: And you said it wasn’t originally “tee”, so we can get rid of anything to do with golf?

A: Correct. The most likely theory is related to dots.

Q: Dots?

A: Dots. But not just any dots. Specifically, the dots that appear above a lower-case “i” or “j”. Each is known as a “tittle” – what Macquarie Dictionary describes as “a dot or other small mark in writing or printing”.

Q: Does it come from “title”?

A: Actually yeah, it relates back to the Latin “titulus” (that also gave us “title”) and was first used in the late 1300s by scholars transcribing the books of the Bible. Another word, “jot” later became synonymous with another meaning for “tittle” – to mean something very small.

Q: So tittle can mean little?

A: Haha, yes. But in this context, it meant the dots on the letters. If you are being precise or exact, you include those little, ahem, tittle details – such as a tittle above the letter “i” or “j”. Hence to do something “to a T”.

Q: T for tittle?

A: Exactly.

Q: Sounds similar to another common phrase, “cross the t’s and dot the i’s”, right?

A: Well yes, although that phrase is from 1849 – much later. The “t” here is coincidental to our “T” (for tittle) but the “dotting of one’s i’s” is a nice reminder of why we have the “to a T” saying in the first place. Also, the meaning of this later phrase is more about completing everything in a task than doing something “exactly”.

Q: Actually, if you write “cross your t’s and dot your i’s” – shouldn’t it be without apostrophes?

A: Yeah, technically there shouldn’t be apostrophes as we are talking about plurals for “t” and “i”, but doing so gives us “ts” and “is”, which is troublesome when written. You can’t revert to uppercase Ts and Is because we’re literally talking about the dot of the lowercase “i”. Plus, it’s an idiom, so “common sense” rules are ignored anyway. So the apostrophes stay.

Q: Fair enough. I guess it’s like a list of “do’s and don’t’s”, right?

A: Not really. We’d still recommend sticking with “dos and don’ts” in that case, even though you may see variations such as AP Style’s “do’s and don’ts”. 

Q: Oh, okay.

A: What it IS like however is “mind your p’s and q’s” – another phrase that usually uses plural lowercase letters and is acceptable to include apostrophes.

Q: So in summary, if we learn something “to a T”, then it’s about doing something precisely. All the way down “to a tittle” – the tiny dot above the letter “i” or “j”.

A: That’s it to a T!

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