English Spelling: Until, 'Til and Till

Vivian Cook 
Extra letters
   Ye/the: Olde Tyme spellings  until

In popular debates about spelling the question of double <ll> versus single <l> in until and till is often raised. Prescriptive spelling rules usually insist that until and till are correct, untill and til or 'til are wrong.

A quick check on Google shows that until spellings outnumber untill spellings by about 100 to 1, till spellings outnumber til spellings by 1.2 to 1 and until outnumbers till by 2 to 1. Many of the til examples are artefacts of Google searching non-English web-pages in languages where til is a preposition, such as Danish and Norwegian.

Until    2,060,000,000
Untill        19,900,000
Till       1,030,000,000
Til/'til      851,000,000
Frequency counts for web-pages in Google (June 2017)

This is confirmed by Google Ngrams, whose corpus is printed books, that is to say texts that have been edited by gatekeepers rather than unchecked web-pages. In the year 2000 the proportions of untill and til are minute compared to until and till. Until outnumbers till by nearly 10 to 1, five times as much as in the web-pages, presumably suggesting that until is felt more appropriate for the printed word. Historically till vastly outnumbered until in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From about 1750, until rose as till declined, exchanging roles around 1850, leading to the modern proportions.

Google Ngrams for until, till, til, 'til, untill

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2017), historically the northern Middle English untill was a combination of the Old Norse und and till. Indeed the first til citation is in 800 and the first till in 1200; the first until comes in 1300, showing till/til preceded til. However the historical record is not so straightforward, as shown by Early Print Ngrams derived from the EEBO database (2017). First we need to include forms with the letter <v>, i.e. vntil, for <u>, since, in texts before the mid-seventeenth century, these had not separated, and those with double <l> vntill, untill.

EEBO Ngrams for until, untill, vntill, vntil, till

1. until. From 1473 to 1630, vntill was the most frequent form of until, peaking about 1580 and petering out by 1640; vntil was second in frequency from 1510 to 1620; untill was the most frequent form from 1630 to 1660, dying out by 1700; until emerged in 1630 and from 1660 on was the most frequent form – contradicting the Google Ngram figures by 200 years! Combining <u/v> examples, only double <l> forms existed before 1630; the modern spelling with one <l> until only became frequent in 1630 and came to dominate post-1660. The Correspondence Corpus CEECS1 1418-1680 (2017) provides no examples with <v>, presumably because of transcription, but has till, til, until and untill more or less throughout.

2. till. Apart from a brief spate in the late fifteenth century, till spellings predominated over til from 1550 onwards. Hence till has overwhelmingly been spelt with two <l>s, at least since the 1473 starting point of the EEBO corpus; older citations in OED nevertheless seem to have til.

3. til. Single <l> spellings til peaked in 1550 and died out by 1680. The seventeenth century occurrences of til in Google N-grams seem largely artefactual, most being texts in other languages and transcription problems. The seventeenth century commonly used apostrophes to show contractions (Scholfield, 2016), usually for single letters rather than multi-letter prefixes like un, so 'til might not seem unusual. But only a single example can be found in a 1655 translation of Machiavelli 'til the event. The OED has no examples of 'til before 1939.

The photos below illustrate the range of alternative forms in the contemporary language of the street, including til', 'till, 'til, untill, til. Clearly, even in these semi-formal uses many people are not confined to a choice between till and until; they know that an apostrophe is needed, the most logical being 'till and 'til; they know that double <ll> is present somewhere and that they must avoid 'til, hence untill. As with the greengrocer's apostrophe in forms like new's and special's, the apostrophe in street signs is not governed by the punctuation rules of printed texts.

'till Ram Jam Inn    til' Ram Jam Inn 
'til you drop 
untill  Til

Examples of till and until in street signs

Thus we can see that the issue of until, till and their variants is not clear-cut. Any prescriptive advice might be that the more frequent until would be safest in prose writing but that, in other genres like street signs, there is a wider choice of forms.


Google Ngram Viewer, https://books.google.com/ngrams/, consulted June 2017

Early English Books On-line (EEBO), https://eebo.chadwyck.com/home, consulted June 2017

Early Print Ngrams https://earlyprint.wustl.edu/, consulted June 2017

Oxford English Dictionary (1888–1928), Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/, consulted June 2017

Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEECS1) (1418-1680), http://ota.ox.ac.uk/desc/2461, consulted June 2017

Scholfield, P. (2016), 'Modernization and standardization since the seventeenth century', in V. Cook and D. Ryan (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the English Writing System, Abingdon: Routledge, 143-162

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