Until / Till

ʌnˈtɪl / tɪl

until / till: up to the time of (an event); during the whole time before

"Sip Til Send"

So I was perusing the pre-operative fasting guidelines for a local hospital the other day (as you do), when I discovered a heartening bit of text:

Once in hospital the ward staff will allow you to sip clear fluids until you are sent for your procedure

Anyone who has fasted for a medical procedure, even quite recently, will realize that this is innovative stuff. In fact, it’s the fairly recent culmination of a rather protracted process that started even before I retired from hospital medicine seven years ago—anaesthetists have gradually been establishing that prolonged fluid fasting doesn’t actually make anaesthesia any safer for most people, might well be counterproductive in many instances, and also makes their patients feel horrible. You can read about the rationale for the new guidance in an article published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, “Two hours too long: time to review fasting guidelines for clear fluids” (2020).

So that was all great stuff. The text was accompanied by the almost inevitable photograph of a person sipping clear fluids (just in case some particularly hard-of-thinking reader might be in doubt about what the process involves) and three words enclosed in quotation marks. The photograph and the words form the head image for this post.

Sip Til Send

Reader, I believe I uttered a small shriek. I certainly flinched, and may well have blanched.

There’s the slight grammatical unease, of course, induced by the fact that the person doing the sipping (the patient) is not the person doing the sending (some member of hospital staff). So the construction feels like it needs a “sent for”, or at least a “sent” in place of the final word.

But it’s that word in the middle that provoked the shriek. As a stout descriptivist when it comes to word usage, it goes against the grain for me to write any sentence beginning “There’s no such word as …” But really, truly, and for pity’s sake, there’s no such word as til.*

At first I assumed this was some isolated typographic misfortune, but it turns out to be the name of a major campaign aimed at changing medical practice for the better, with a Twitter feed, a hashtag and at least two logos to its name:

And it seems to be having considerable and deserved success, with the protocol being widely adopted—though some anaesthetic departments are apparently as disconcerted by the language as I am. I’ve found it rebadged “sip until send” in Worcester, “sip until sent for” in Calderdale and Huddersfield (people after my own heart, clearly), and “sip till send” in Greater Glasgow. I particularly like the approach at the New Victoria Ambulatory Care Hospital, which calls the initiative “Sip Til Send” (which is its name, after all), but seems to have edited the logos on the accompanying documents to read “sip till send”.

So how did we get into a situation in which a laudable, important and successful campaign to improve medical practice is lumbered with a non-standard spelling of the common word till?

I think two things have been going on. One is that, at some time during the twentieth century, people began to feel inappropriately uneasy about till, interpreting it to be a slovenly contraction of until. As a result, they started nervously writing ’til. Bryan Garner, in his rather marvellous Modern English Usage (2016), writes that this only became widespread during the 1980s—which fits with my own recollection of encountering it for the first time in the late ’70s, in a handwritten note in a patient’s medical records.

And of course the long, slow decline of the apostrophe during the twentieth century has been accelerating of late, as companies like Waterstone’s have started abandoning their possessive apostrophes:

Waterstones shop front, before and after 2012

It’s an expensive business for a large company to change its logotype in this way, so there must be some financial pay-off—I find it difficult to believe that the driver for this is merely that internet addresses don’t accommodate apostrophes, so that companies are changing their shopfronts to match their URLs, but that’s the justification I usually see.

And then there’s the business of trying to find an apostrophe while thumb-typing on your phone—for many people that’s just not going to happen, in the white heat of getting a social media post out into the world.

So apostrophes have come to be seen (in some quarters) as a disposable affectation of a bygone age—hence, I think, the transformation of ’til to just plain til.

But til will look odd to many English speakers, I think, because short words ending with the sound /ɪl/ are usually spelled with a terminal -ill. Will, fill, shrill, drill, chill, ill … You get the picture. These words are generally very old, embedded in the language since Middle English or Old English, and of Germanic origin, and their spelling has become standardized over the centuries. The only common exception is nil—an odd little word that popped into existence in the nineteenth century as a contraction of Latin nihil, “nothing”. And it’s common enough to see it misspelled nill, under the influence of all those other -ill words.

And till is indeed a very old word—it comes to us from Old Norse, courtesy of the Scandinavian settlers who occupied the part of northern England called the Danelaw. In Norse, its meaning was “to [a place]”, and that meaning persisted in northern English dialects for a long time, and in Scots up to the present day. But it also acquired its current meaning of “to [a time]” very early—the OED‘s first illustrative citations are from the fourteenth century.

The word until is almost as ancient as till, and is formed from it. The un- prefix in this case is Norse, implying “up to” or “as far as”. So while till related to a destination, until referred to points on the way to the destination, as well. Using modern English words in their old Norse sense, there was a difference between going “till Iceland” (in which the destination is the prime consideration) and crossing the sea “until Iceland” (in which the journey itself is also important).

Like till, until eventually came to refer exclusively to periods of time. But it still retains the Norse sense of “up to” or “as far as”—you stay in the office until a certain time, for instance—and that meaning has rubbed off on to till, obscuring the original difference between them.

Norse un- also found its way into southern dialects of English, modifying the word to, to produce unto, which had the same original meaning as northern until, and then became synonymous with to, and then faded out of use. Probably many of us have only ever encountered it in quotations from the King James translation of the Bible:

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 22:21

The fading away of unto serves as a reminder of how odd it is that we’ve retained both until and till, which seems like one more word than we really need. Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), tells us that until is more likely to be used at the start of a sentence than till, and is “fractionally more formal”.

This might account for the fact that until occurs much more frequently than till in edited prose (including fiction). In practice until is six times more likely than till to turn up in such work (according to a standard dictionary of word frequency).

So it seems to be primarily a matter of linguistic register—how formal or informal do we want our message to be? Which means there’s a subtle difference between “sip until send” and “sip till send”, in terms of how the reader will perceive the writer. Do people prefer their hospital communications to be couched in formal or informal language? Depends on the person, I think. But trying to adhere to standard spelling does seem like a good idea.

* The logophile in me compels me to admit that there’s a plant in India with the Hindi name til, and a tree in Madeira with the same name in the local dialect of Portuguese, both of which have leaked into English in a limited way, which is why til is a legal Scrabble word.
There seems to be a cycle in these things. The OED records that, during the eighteenth century (when the spelling untill was common), till was frequently printed as ’till.
This quotation was the first place I encountered the archaic word unto, when I was a fairly small child but nevertheless already fascinated by words. So I knew about the function of the Germanic prefix un-, expressing negation, reversal or deprivation, but was a bit shaky on the meaning of render, and of course had no clue that there was another, Norse, version of un- with a completely different meaning. So as far as I was concerned, unto had to mean the opposite of to, which led me to believe that Jesus wanted people to deprive Caesar and God of their belongings. I was (just) wise enough to keep this idea to myself.

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