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My roommate asked me how to spell the first word of Till death do us part (for reasons that I don’t fully recall, but it definitely wasn’t because we were starting some odd sort of relationship). We agreed there were three possibilities:

til, till, ’til

I quickly responded that ’til was the logical choice, a truncation of until, with the missing un marked by an apostrophe. Open-and-shut case. Except that it wasn’t. It kept gnawing at me. Had I seen people use till in that context? Why would they do that? So I made the same mistake I often do, and I looked into exactly what the deal was. First off, let’s look at some proponents of each form:

‘Tils:
‘Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann’s semi-pivotal 80s band
‘Til Death, Brad Garrett’s follow-up to Everybody Loves Raymond
Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Tills:
Till Death Us Do Part, British sitcom that paved the way for All in the Family
From Dusk Till Dawn, movie featuring Salma Hayek dancing and (so it is rumored) some other plot as well.

(Til is hard to find attestations of — people seem to be pretty good at remembering to put apostrophes at the words when the first syllable is removed.) So why would anyone spell it till if it’s coming from until? Well, it turns out that till isn’t derived from untilTill and ’til are actually two different words with two different etymologies. Till is the earlier form, attested as early as 1330; Until is actually derived from till, not the other way around as in ’til (a backformation which showed up much later).  Both are common, so it’s up to you which one you like.  Till is commoner in Scotland, where it can be used like dative to in some situations, while ’til is commoner in the U.S.  Take your pick.

1. Quotation marks are not intended to convey emphasis

The beauty of typing on a computer is that you can make the font bold or italic or underlined to convey emphasis. If you are writing something by hand, you can still clearly underline or increase the size of characters you want to emphasize. You can also use the Usenet style of enclosing a word in *asterisks* or _underscores_ to convey boldness & italicization respectively when you cannot actually make text bold or italic. At least one of these methods of emphasizing text should be more acceptable to you than using quotation marks.

My guess is that this usage developed out of the use of scare quotes, quotation marks used to convey an ironic, new, or nonstandard meaning of a word. Scare quotes, by noting that there is something curious about the word, also serve to emphasize the word, just as with italics around foreign expressions or newly-defined words. However, while italic text can be used solely for emphasis, quotation marks always carry some other meaning in addition to emphasis. So using them to only convey emphasis is confusing. Please don’t.

2. Quotation marks shouldn’t stick around

This is a matter of style, so feel free to disagree, but you usually only need to put a word in quotation marks once:

(1) Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I have a dream”. His “dream” was racial harmony.
(2) My congressman has a “solution” to end poverty. That “solution” is to eliminate Welfare.

With regards to (1), you’ve already given appropriate credit for the word “dream” to MLK. You can now use it as your own. With regards to (2), we get it. Your congressman is an idiot and his proposal is a solution in his mind but not in yours. The key point here is that you can use words that are not your own, and people will figure it out all the same.

3. Quotation marks should not steal candy from babies

It’s just morally wrong.

[I apologize for the prescriptivism, but this issue has come up twice in two days and thus must be clarified. Although I suppose the fact that this issue has come up twice in two days suggests that the language is changing and I ought to get on the trolley.]

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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