Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

In my language column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been writing about whether presently is ambiguous, as some authorities warn, and about the uses of and differences between till, until, and their abbreviations.

Ambiguity is presently unlikely shows my conclusion in the title, but the detail is worth examining. I’m usually reluctant to warn against using certain words or phrases, and so it is with presently in its primary sense of ‘currently’:

Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity. . . .

[But] if I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant.

*

The difference between till and until is something I’ve been asked about a few times over the years. In TIL about till and until, I sort out these synonyms and related forms, describing how they differ, how they don’t, where you can use them, and which ones to avoid. There’s also a bit of history:

People often assume that till is simply an abbreviation of until, but in fact till is a few centuries older. It shows up in the runic inscription on the ancient Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, where its original sense was the same as ‘to’.

There is an abbreviation of until: ’til. Some critics reject it, because we already have till. They may even call it incorrect. ’Till is still more disparaged, because the apostrophe is superfluous, and although this form was used by George Washington, of all people, I can’t recommend it. Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.

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13 Responses to Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

  1. stuartnz says:

    “Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.”

    I grew up spelling “till” “til” and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I learned it was considered non-standard. It wasn’t till I was in my 40s that I learned it’s not that uncommon in Indian English, so until I learn otherwise, I’m going to keep blaming my Anglo-Indian sole parent father for this quirk of my idiolect.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s not uncommon in (unedited) British English or Irish English either, and presumably in other varieties. A corner shop in my neighbourhood has a big blue til on its front wall, between its opening and closing hours. I don’t use it, and when editing I’d change it to a standard alternative, but I don’t mind it.

  2. SlideSF says:

    Can we mention the ubiquity (here in the US) of using the word most when what is meant is ‘most, as in an abbreviation for almost? It seems to be so common that apparently no one is even aware anymore that it is an abbreviation.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m familiar with this usage, but it’s not in my dialect. It’s been around for a few centuries, according to the OED, which offers an early example from George Washington: “the Tassels of most all the Corn”.

  3. I don’t like the idea of using till as a short form of until. Where did the extra L come from? There is already another meaning of till (as in what one does to earth). But “til” is clearly a cropped form and has no other meaning. True, you could make a case for an apostrophe, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. There’s nothing missing (as in l’il for little). What about “nuf,” as in “Nuf said”? Is it ‘nuf? Or is nuf enough?

  4. astraya says:

    ‘Presently’ is a word I am not likely to use, whether it’s ambiguous or not. To me, it has an ‘older woman’ sort of feel. I would almost always use ‘now, nowadays, currently’ or ‘soon’. A search of my documents folders shows it in documents written by other people, but not by me. In one of those, the frame verb tense is past simple, but the meaning is ‘soon after (in the past)’: from an account of the first days of British settlement in Australia “One of them … went into the Wood, and presently came forth again”.

    I guessed that I use ‘until’ more often that ’till’. My diary of my first stay in Korea (2006-09) shows 115 occurrences of ‘until’ and 7 of ’till’. When I am editing, I almost always change ’till’ to ‘until’, but there are some, generally set phrases, which just seem to be more natural with ’till’. I can’t think of an actual editing-related example, but ’till the cows come home’ v ‘until the cows come home’ springs to mind.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Always interesting to see personal stats. I don’t use presently very often, and would tend to restrict it to formal or semi-formal communication or when affecting that register. When I was young I used ’til, but once I learned about till I consciously switched. I think I use it a lot more in speech than writing, where until still predominates.

    • Michael Vnuk says:

      ‘Older woman’ sort of feel for ‘presently’? Yes, for me, a particular older woman. My grandmother on my mother’s side was born in Australia in 1896. Much of her background was Irish. I remember her using ‘presently’ in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time I felt that she seemed to use the word more than other people. However, my memory is not good enough for me to reliably retrieve the word in context, so I now can’t determine exactly how she used the word.

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