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.

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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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Truly, funly, tilly: language notes in Dark Places

July 5, 2016

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.

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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.

Updates:

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.