Truly, funly, tilly: language notes in Dark Places

After reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn I blogged briefly about its references to grammar; this post does likewise for her previous book, Dark Places (2009) though the items concern spelling and punctuation more than grammar this time. Slight spoilers follow.

The narrator, Libby Day, as a young girl survived her family being murdered. For most of her adult life she has been living on the money sent to her by donors via her banker, Jim Jeffreys, who:

used to hand me bulging shoe boxes full of mail, most of them letter with checks inside. I’d sign the check over to him, and then the donor would receive a form letter in my blocky handwriting. “Thank you for your donation. It is people like you who let me look forward to a brighter future. Your truly, Libby Day.” It really did say “your” truly, a misspelling that Jim Jeffreys thought people would find poignant.

It’s a nice idea, that. I wonder how it arose. Driving from Kansas City to St Louis, Day remarks on some anomalous roadside punctuation:

The billboards ominously advising love of Jesus were in direct proportion to those advertising porn liquidators, and the signs for local restaurants consistently misused quotation marks: Herb’s Highway Diner—The “Best” Meal in Town; Jolene’s Rib House—Come in for Our “Delicious” Baby Back Ribs.

By coincidence, I recently looked at the use of quotation marks for emphasis.

gillian flynn dark places book coverFlynn writes in the Acknowledgements that she ‘couldn’t have lucked into a funner family. And no, funner is not a word.’ I guess she means it’s not a word in standard usage – this is often what underlies ‘not a word’ claims – but there’s no question that funner is a word by any well-founded definition of wordhood.

I saved the best (or the most interesting to me, anyway) till last. The book uses the spelling til throughout – about ten times that I noticed. It’s used in dialogue:

“Don’t open for the night til…” he trailed off when he saw me.

“You can never say that you know me, not til we leave.”

and in running prose:

Hide him away til this blew over?

I started screaming, nasty things, slamming my hand on the window, yelling til spittle ran out my mouth . . .

I stayed . . . for two hours, til we started running out of things to say, like we always did.

This is an unusual way to render the word. When until is abbreviated in formal contexts, it normally takes an apostrophe: ’til. (Till is older than until, and fully standard, but it’s not used in the book.) The apostrophised form ’til is used at least once, but – as if getting things back on unorthodox track – til appears later in the same paragraph.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, Jessa Crispin wondered if it was a Midwestern thing, as she ‘grew up thinking that was how it was done’. Flynn was born in Kansas City. Maybe it is a Midwestern thing, but it’s not a standard spelling, so I’m surprised it was used.

Just slightly surprised, mind. A search on COCA returns 1550 hits,* but a lot are false positives for ’til or until. Still, it could be more common in edited prose than I had supposed. Maybe Flynn stetted it, and the copy editor and proofreader missed one? Suggestions on a postcard or in the comment box below.

* Compare with 13,410 for till and 222,883 for until.


12 Responses to Truly, funly, tilly: language notes in Dark Places

  1. stuartnz says:

    Yay! Someone else who uses “til” – it’s been part of my idiolect for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I just assumed it was the standard contraction. Even when spellcheckers sternly admonished me to choose between “until” or “till” I stuck with “til”. Only in informal registers, of course. I’ll wait til it’s more widely accepted before using it in formal registers.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You may have to wait a while, Stuart! I would forecast the time of its widespread acceptance in formal standard English at centuries from now or never. But I could be wrong. A couple of people told me on Twitter that they use til, but it barely makes an appearance in dictionaries or usage dictionaries. Even the common variant ’til has an ambiguous reputation, often being seen as superfluous and ungainly at best.

    • I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and always used ’til, (yes, with an apostrophe), as in “Don’t eat the cake ’til I get there!” I still use ’til, and wasn’t aware that “it’s not a word” or it’s incorrect or something. Apparently people prefer “till.” To me, that word has to do with soil, or perhaps money (as in to dip into the till); nevertheless, people use till to mean “until.” My belief was always that ’til was an elided form of until, like ’em is an elided form of them. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m staying wrong! I will use ’til ’til the cows come home!

      • Stan Carey says:

        Yes, ’til is an abbreviated form of until. Some people don’t care for it, preferring till, but both are correct, standard English. As I say in the post: ‘When until is abbreviated in formal contexts, it normally takes an apostrophe: ’til.’ It’s the spelling without an apostrophe, til, that’s less officially acceptable.

  2. Virginia Simmon says:

    Oh, Stan! Your wonderful post has reminded me of a time 15 years ago not long after I was hired as managing editor for a regional glossy magazine. We had a monthly column written by an advertising guru who had sharpened his skills at iconic New York City agencies. (He claimed to have been on the team that created the “Got Milk?” ad.) He was a confirmed prescriptivist.
    Not long after I started, I corrected his use of till with ’til, which I had used since my youth and never been corrected. He shot off a blistering email informing me that only idiots and amateurs use ’til, and I should immediately change my ways.
    We eventually became, if not friends, then at least friendly colleagues, and he continued to send me blistering emails whenever he disagreed with one of my edits. Sadly, he’s no longer with us, and believe it or not, I miss the guy. Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good story, Virginia! Thanks for telling it here. Some of the best people are opinionated prescriptivists, and I’m sure you had many a lively disagreement with him on matters of usage. I share his preference for till over ’til, if not his abhorrence for the latter or his intemperance.

  3. Stan, I’m happy to report that M-W includes both _’til_ and _til_ at its entry for _till_–the former as an “or” variant and the latter as an “also” (less common) variant: I should say I’m both happy and relieved; I use _til_ regularly, though not in business correspondence.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I was happy to see that, Emily. Most dictionaries make no mention of til (except sometimes in the sesame plant sense), but it’s evidently a not-uncommon variant, certainly in casual writing.

  4. SlideSF says:

    Somewhat related, and which I see more often, is the use of “most” as a contraction for “almost”, but without an apostrophe.(most instead of ‘most). As in “I wake up most every morning before 6:00 am”; not to be confused with “I wake up most mornings before 6:00 am.” Is the elimination of the apostrophe common usage these days? I see it all the time.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s one I’ve noticed now and then but not looked into. I’m not sure how common it is, with or without the apostrophe. It could be a throwback, or a parallel, to the early days of almost, when it was two words: all most (or eall mæst in Old English). The OED notes that when most modified all (or sometimes each), as in, mæst ealle, “the sense ‘for the most part’ passes into that of ‘nearly'”.

  5. bevrowe says:

    The trouble with “funner” is that “fun” is a noun used attributively. I don’t think that such nouns are comfortable with -er suffixes. Would you talk about a stoner wall? It would be a useful addition to the language of course. (“Funner” hasn’t made the OED.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Is it? I’d have thought it has made the leap to full adjectival status. Entries in AHD, M-W, OD, Macmillan and Cambridge support this, even if the OED hasn’t caught up yet.

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