You may have heard the expression ‘until the cows come home’, meaning ‘for a very long time’: If the manager wants perfection, she’ll be waiting till the cows come home. But it is till or until the cows come home? And what’s the difference?
Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the phrase shows that either word is fine – in this context they are perfectly interchangeable. Both till and until can be used as a preposition or as a conjunction. As a preposition, they’re followed by a noun: I’ll be around till Sunday; We can live here until 2025. As a conjunction, they connect two clauses: She kept painting till she was happy with it; He ran until he could run no more.
In these examples, till and until can be swopped around. This is not always possible or appropriate. As Liz Potter wrote in a Language Tip post, till is less formal; until is more formal. So if you’re writing a business report or other serious text, until is probably the better choice. If you want to convey a more casual tone, till will do this. Until is also more common at the start of a sentence – though till is found here too.
The difference in register is not huge, and in many contexts, as we’ve seen, you can use whichever word you prefer or whichever one sounds better to you. Sometimes metre is a factor: if you’re writing poetry – even something playful, like a limerick – then the difference between one syllable and two is significant.
Till and until are both very old words. 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.
TIL, which appears in the title of this post, is short for today I learned, and is in popular use online. Finally, till has another use in Irish English, where it means something like ‘in order that’: ‘Come here till I tell you a story’ means ‘Come here so that I can tell you a story.’ Maybe it’s a story about till.Email this Post