When you teach English as a Second Language (ESL), you often get grammar questions from your international students that you can’t answer. That’s because you’re a native speaker of English; you picked it up as a baby. You didn’t have to learn it in school, so you take a lot of the grammar for granted-until one of your students asks about it. Then you have to think, and maybe tell them you’ll check and get back to them.
One such piece of grammar is the word until (which I used in the previous paragraph). It has one usage in an affirmative sentence, another in the negative.
I’ll be working until 5:00. (I’m working now.)
This price is only good until next Monday. (It’s good now, but it won’t be after Monday.)
The store is open until 10:00 every night. (It’s open before 10:00–not after.)
Let’s wait until everyone is ready. (They’re getting ready now; after that, the show will start.)
They danced until dawn. (They started the night before and kept going up to sunrise.)
In each case, something continues to happen up to a point, then stops. The action or situation continues until the word until!
The negative of until has the exact opposite meaning; the action starts after the word until:
Do not open until Christmas. (Not now, later!)
I can’t meet you until 6:00. (You’ll have to wait.)
We won’t start the concert until everyone is seated. (They’re not all seated now.)
They never buy a car until they have the money. (So they have to save up-for later.)
Until my uncle died, I didn’t realize how much I loved him. (I realized it after he died.)
A Complex Example
And look at this complicated structure: “It wasn’t until my uncle died that I realized how much I loved him.” This structure won’t work in the affirmative at all. “It was until my uncle died that I realized. . . .” What? No! Doesn’t make any sense!
An Easy Example
If a teacher says, “We’re going to have recess until the cows come home,” versus, “We’re not going to have recess until the cows come home,” which would most children prefer?
A Puzzling Example
One of my students wrote, in an essay about education in a developing country, “The poor and girls can go to school, but not until high school.” They meant the opposite of what they wrote. They should have written, “but only until high school.”
With the affirmative, the action continues until the word until. If there’s a negative verb or time expression in the sentence, the action starts after the until. Simple!