"until" vs "before" or "to"

sagehen sagehen at WESTELCOM.COM
Tue Jul 17 17:11:58 UTC 2007

>On Jul 16, 2007, at 6:16 PM, Beverly Flanigan wrote:
>> Did the announcer say "until" or "till"?  "Till" is more common,
>> and the
>> standard term in the Midland (and South, I believe).  It goes way
>> back,
>> noted in early travel journals as of Scotch-Irish origin.
>as beverly suggests in a later message, "until" here is probably --
>or, at least, probably started as -- a hypercorrection for "till".
>there is a widespread (but historically wrong) belief that "till" is
>an abbreviated, informal version of "until", which leads some people
>to spell it "'til".
>as for origins, it's northern british, from scandinavian.  OED:
>"Characteristically northern in reference to place or purpose...; in
>reference to time, general Engl. from c1300, though now often
>superseded by the compound UNTIL."
>> As a common daily usage, it
>> goes deep: I always tell my students that I, a Northerner born and
>> bred,
>> will always say "quarter to," but my Indiana/Ohio son will forever say
>> "quarter till."
>surely some american dialectologist has looked at the regional
>> The third option is usually "quarter of";
>i believe this is general american.  it is definitely *not* british;
>when i lived in the u.k. i had to learn, very quickly, not to use
>"of" in time expressions, because people were just baffled by it.
>the OED gives it as "N.Amer., Sc., and Irish English (north.)" and
>glosses it as TO prep. 6b.  that is, the OED takes "to" to be the pan-
>english preposition for this use, and "till"/"until" and "of" to be
>regional variants.
>> I've never heard
>> "quarter before" (or 15 minutes before).  This seems to me simply
>> dialectal, not semantic.
>this use of "before" looks like just the ordinary preposition
>"before" 'previous to', as in "before dark/midnight/Easter".  it's
>simply the counterpart of "after".  the OED doesn't give it a
>subentry and has no examples with hours.
>i'd guess that this use of "before" has been innovated many times in
>many places, by specialization of general temporal "before" and/or as
>a contrast to temporal "after"/"past" (both metaphorized from spatial
>to temporal uses, though temporal "past" seems to have been
>specialized mostly to uses with hours).  that wouldn't, of course,
>preclude its now having a dialectal distribution -- though the
>distribution might be complex.
>a virtue of "before" here is that it is semantically transparent, in
>no way idiomatic, so that it will always work.  in my time in the
>u.k., after i realized that my "of" wouldn't fly, i became worried
>about my other normal choice, "to", since it also was idiomatic, and
>i feared that it might not be general in british english (there's no
>way you can tell what people in some social group do *as a whole*;
>you can only know what you've experienced), so i mostly opted for
>"before", which everyone understood.  (and if people found it a bit
>odd, well, i was a yank and often sounded funny to them.)
>in any case, most people have two or more of these variants available
>to them, so there's a question of how particular people make the
>choice between the variants they use.  i have no idea what factors
>influence my choice of "to" and "of" (when i'm in the u.s.), but
>there's probably something going on there. (alison murie seems to
>choose between "to" and "before", and we can ask about the factors
>favoring one or the other for her.  other speakers have "to" and
>"till" as their principal variants.  there are probably some
>americans with "to", "till", and "of", all with a fair frequency, and
>others with "to", "before", and "of".  etc.)
>since i hold the position that no variation is entirely free -- my
>Linguistic Institute course this summer is "Choosing a Variant:
>Unfree Variation" -- i expect that careful studies will find contexts
>in which the choice of variants makes a difference of some sort.  (my
>position is consistent with the choice being essentially random,
>though with a general preference for one variant over another, in
>many, or even most, contexts.)
>i'd guess that there's some literature on these choices in regional
>dialects, but probably not in other social dialects, and almost
>surely not in individuals.
>i've skimmed some of the high-end advice books and find nothing on
>these prepositions (though i have to confess that it's hard to know
>where to look -- i tried "to", "of", "till", "before", "minutes",
>"quarter", and "time expressions").  i didn't find anything in the
>big Quirk grammar or in Huddleston & Pullum (again, a proviso about
>how hard it is to search).  i'd guess that some of the books meant
>for schoolkids are more directive, and there might be something in
>the big style manuals (like the Chicago Manual of Style) and in
>reference works meant for learners of english as a second language.
>(i'm working at home today, away from most of my library, but i'll
>check things out tomorrow.  meanwhile it's Waiting for the Repairman,
>Or Someone Like Him.)
As I said, somewhere in this thread, I am much more likely to use "of" than
any of the other  preps.  I hadn't thought of Jamie's objection since I
don't usually use "after" but "past"  on the other side of the hour.  I
think I said "half past ten," e.g., more often than "ten-thirty," when I
was a kid, but now probably use "ten-thirty" more.
Speaking of the UK, I was often baffled by the expression "half three,"
e.g., not knowing whether it meant half before or half after.  I've a dim
recollection of reading somewhere that it depends on where in the UK it is
used.  Scots mean one thing, English the other.
I find your faith that the Repairman will come *today* rather touching.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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