Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

November 19, 2018

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.

China Miéville’s new conjunction

January 5, 2018

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

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Hypercorrect ‘as’ for ‘like’

September 17, 2015

I tweeted about this a couple of months ago and have been meaning to follow up ever since. The item that interests me is a usage in the subhead of an article from Brussels-based news service Politico. Here’s the relevant portion: grammar - hypercorrect as for like

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When without = unless

July 17, 2015

In A. L. Barker’s darkly comic novel John Brown’s Body (1965) there is a use of the word without that’s fairly unusual nowadays:

She moaned, curling deeper into the dark. Nothing was finished or forgettable. Jack said that everyone went off balance sometime – at spiders or red rags or, in his case, temperance hotels. But this thing of hers was so almighty that she would have prayed to it if it would have done any good, asked to be let off a little, excused just enough to make it endurable. Painlessness she did not expect, not without she died and was born another person, but a little less cruelty, a grain of consciousness – the final humiliation was in not knowing herself – this she would have begged and prayed for if she thought anyone or anything was listening. [my underlines]

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Plus, you can use it like this now

October 7, 2013

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

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Come here till I tell you about ‘till’ in Ireland

January 31, 2012

Till (= until) has an extra sense in Irish English that means something like ‘in order that’ or ‘so that [someone] can…’. A doting relative, upon meeting you after a long absence, might say ‘Come here till I see you’, which means ‘Come closer so that I can look at you properly’.

Raymond Hickey, in his essay Southern Irish English, gives the example ‘Come here till I tell you.’ This common expression can invite a listener who is within earshot to move physically closer, or it can serve simply to announce an item of discourse, to prepare an audience’s ears for something of interest or significance, e.g.:

Come here till I tell you what happened this morning.

Used this way, Come here till I tell you is like a longer version of Old English Hwæt! (Hark!, Lo!, Listen!, etc.; literally What!), signalling the beginning of a story, albeit usually shorter than Beowulf. Some speakers run ‘Come here till’ together so it sounds like ‘C’meertle’.

T. P. Dolan has a nice entry in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, in which he says till reflects the wider meaning of go /gʌ/ — the corresponding conjunction in Irish — and the idiom behaves ‘as if it were an adverbial clause of purpose’.

You can see how it works in the literary examples he provides:

Where is he till I murder him? (James Joyce, Ulysses)

Come here till I embrace you. (Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot)

Tell me who’s to blame will yeh til I tear his friggin’ head off. (Billy Roche, A Handful of Stars)

Come here till I comb your hair. (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes)

And a few more from Google Books:

‘You killed my brother,’ said the giant; ‘come here, till I make a garter of your body.’ (J. M. Synge, The Aran Island)

‘Och, captain, avick! och! och! come here till I eat you!’ And she flung her arm round Robinson’s neck, and bestowed a little furious kiss on him. (Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend)

Give me yer blissin’ till I go away to push me fortune. (Seumas MacManus, ‘Twas in Dhroll Donegal)

The MacManus line is one of several illustrative examples included in Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English.

P. W. Joyce reported in 1910 that this till (‘in order that’) was used in many parts of Ireland. Certainly it was familiar to me growing up in the west, and I still hear and use it from time to time.


Elizabeth McGuane adds the related Come here to me and Come here to me now till I tell you. Ronan Delaney believes it’s ‘all down to that full Irish construction Gabh i leigth anseo go… or roughly Goile’nseo go…’

John Byrne says C’mere till I tell you a question is an ‘old Limerickism’, while Sally Tipper says the post got her thinking about the ‘northern English use of while to mean till‘, as in ‘I’ll not be back while late’; she can’t vouch for all contexts, so maybe a native can shed light.

The Oxford, Harvard, or Serial Comma

June 30, 2011

That’s the comma that sometimes appears just before the coordinating conjunction (normally and or or) near the end of a list of three or more items. There’s one in the title of this post. It became known as the Oxford comma because “for a century it has been part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently”.

Its omission often makes little difference (“We offer tea, coffee and orange juice”), but ambiguity arises easily (“At Jim’s house I met Jo, a student and an artist”). An almighty fuss broke out among writers and editors on Twitter this week when it emerged that a style guide for University of Oxford staff advises against using the Oxford comma, except where it “would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity”.

Mark Allen pointed out that the page in question was last updated in 2009, but it seemed to have slipped under the collective editorial radar until lately. Some people thought that Oxford University Press, or even the Oxford Manual of Style, were abolishing their eponymous mark. Not so.

Yet there was much gnashing of teeth, wailing and flailing, and references to “cold, dead hands”. I saw an astonishing number of people mourning the “death” of the Oxford comma.

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