"until" vs "before" or "to"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 17 19:57:52 UTC 2007

All of these "before" forms are used in BE, except for "of." I
personally use "of," but it's an affectation. I heard white people
using this form and thought that it was pretty cool, when I had the
misfortune to be stationed at the now-defunct Fort Devens, near Ayer,
MA, in 1959. I've used it every <har! har!> since.

As Gary US Bonds once put it, "Don't you know, I danced till a quarter
to three?"


On 7/17/07, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at csli.stanford.edu> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: "until" vs "before" or "to"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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 superseded by the compound UNTIL."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
> distribution.
> > 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.)
> arnold
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