Till vs Until: A Sign-Oriented Approach

Yishai Tobin

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

I. Traditional/Neotraditional Approaches

The alternative linguistic signs till/until constitute a "classic" case of two forms (almost) universally considered to be synonyms which are probably (almost) always interchangeable save for diglossic or stylistic preferences of individual speakers and writers. In this paper I will question these traditional and neo-traditional assumptions and provide an alternative sign- oriented analysis based on the theoretical and methodological concepts of invariance, markedness, and distinctive feature analysis (Tobin 1990, 1993, 1994/1995). I will first summarize the various ways that till and until have been analyzed.

A. The synonyms/interchangeable approach

A quick look at a sample of major British and American dictionaries (e.g., Longman, Oxford, Cassell's, Chambers, Collins Cobuild) reveals that each form is usually listed (with its counterpart placed in parentheses), and categorized as to "part of speech", and, therefore, explicitly and implicitly, till and until are seen as synonyms: "till (also until): prep. conj." If any difference is mentioned between the two, it is usually stylistic or idiosyncratic in nature: until is "more formal" and/or "it is a matter of personal choice." A cursory examination of thesauri (e.g., Roget's Thesaurus, The Miriam Webster Thesaurus) also reveals that they are listed together as synonyms, however, this time with a different part of speech: till/until , adverbs of time. Various handbooks of proper usage and/or grammar books representing various theoretical approaches (e.g., Alexander 1991, Aesop 1985, Abate and Abate 1979, Frank 1972, Greenbaum and Whitcut 1988, Jespersen 1970, Leech and Swartik 1984, and Ward 1993) also consider these forms to be synonymous and interchangeable, this time, however, with fairly conflicting evaluations of their part of speech as well as their stylistic, diglossic, poetic, and idiosyncratic uses:

TILL and Until: These two words mean exactly the same. TILL is more common in conversational English; UNTIL is used in both conversation and formal styles. Swan (1980:611)

In all varieties of writing till and until are interchangeable both as prepositions (wait till/until tomorrow) and as conjunctions (Wait till/until they get here). (Ebbitt & Ebbitt 1979: 283)

Till is a synonym for until, probably less common in the written language than until is. Till often has a literary or poetic effect. (Frank 1972:36)

Till and until are synonyms, used in subordinating clauses or as prepositions. They are used idiosyncratically by various writers (Di Hall Cane and Doyle use until preferably or even exclusively, while Hardy seems to use till only. (Jespersen 1970)

Till is not distinguished in meaning from until... (Ward 1993: 314-315)

B. The Negative Aspect of un-til

Other scholars such as Quirk (1978), Mittwoch (1977) and Kartunnen (1974) distinguish between the two and classify until as a negation word (perhaps assuming un- as a negative prefix) associated either with negative predictions or as being outside the scope of the negative with conflicting views of the temporal implications of the above:

Till/until occur as prepositions of time. Until specifies a terminal point with a positive and a commencement point with a negative prediction. (Quirk 1978)

I shall defend the position that the until-phrase in negative sentences with punctual verbs... is a durational adverbial outside the scope of the negative... [I] will provide evidence against the commonly held view that until is a negative polarity item (Mittwoch 1977:410).

However, what is good for the until "goose" is also good for the till "gander" regarding negative prediction and scope as may be seen in the following sentence: "He won't sleep till/until the sun rises" in which both are acceptable.


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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 2 : Page 1 / 10

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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