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shameless pleading

Whence/Hence/Thence

There’s no “there” thence.

Dear Word Detective: For years, I have felt smugly superior to writers who say “from whence” or “from hence” (so, err, I hope you never have), because I’ve been under the impression that “whence” and “hence” by themselves mean “from where” and “from here,” respectively. That’s why “Get thee hence!” seems perfectly grammatical to my ear, though also over-the-top 19th-century Gothic. It struck me just now that I have no hard evidence for this belief. Have I been wrong all this time, or can I go back to being smug? — Alan Clark.

Good heavens, sire, thou art laboring under a most unfortunate misapprehension; to wit, that smugness or excessive self-esteem in one’s manner regarding grammar and usage has any necessary connection to linguistic virtue. Nay, the two are frequently opposites, and even a cursory survey of commercial literature devoted to correctness in speech and writing will often reveal a multitude of witless errors, masquerading as inviolate principles, pronounced with absolute Biblical certainty. Proceeding apace to the bottom line and cutting thenceforth to the chase, most of the iron laws of language are no more eternal (or natural) than a pile of Cheez Whiz in the path of a hungry dog. So don’t sweat it. Personally, I take great pride in peppering my speech with “they” and “their” used as singular epicene pronouns. Drives the foamers nuts.

By the way, you missed a spot. In addition to “whence” (meaning “from where”) and  “hence” (“from here,” “from this time” or “for this reason”), we also have “thence,” which means basically “from there” (“I’m going to the Quickee-Mart and thence to Pizza World. Can I get you anything?”).

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” are all very old words, from ancient Germanic roots, first appearing in Old English. The Indo-European root of “whence,” incidentally, was the interrogatory stem “qwo,” which is also connected to “when,” “who,” “where,” “which,” “why” and “how.”

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” strike modern ears as a bit odd because they each contain a sort of built-in preposition, in most cases “from.” But they also all denote a particular point (“where,” “here” or “there”) away from which action flows in some form, which is a prescription for most modern English-speakers to dust off “from” and deploy it. This leads to all sorts of fun, most notably in the ruckus over “whence.” Since “whence” in itself means “from where,” saying “from whence” is considered, by many people, to be redundant, equivalent to saying “from from where.” On the other hand, the average modern reader or listener is far more likely to accept “from whence” without a problem, and far more likely to stumble over a simple, unadorned “whence,” which can seem a bit jarring, even to the cognoscenti (“His first stop will be Morocco, followed by Senegal, whence he will embark across the Atlantic Ocean,” Newscom.au, 1/12). Most readers would pause a moment at that naked “whence,” and most writers wisely avoid erecting such tiny hurdles in their narrative stream.

Consequently, “from whence” is far from rare today, has actually been commonly used since the 13th century, and was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has been used, indeed, by some very famous writers (“Let him walke from whence he came,” Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, 1616; “From whence have we derived that spiritual profit?”, Dickens, Bleak House, 1853). “From hence” and “from thence” have been similarly popular over the centuries.

But such an illustrious pedigree hasn’t conferred immunity from censure on “from whence.” Samuel Johnson called it “a vicious mode of speech” in 1755 (though “vicious” was not as strong a word then as today), and 18th, 19th and 20th century grammarians have almost unanimously condemned “from whence.” Since “hence” has gradually lost its connotation of physical location and is now used mostly in reference to either logic in the sense of “from this flows that” (“He died broke, hence the money he stole was never repaid”) or time (“Six years hence we’ll look back at this and laugh.”), “from hence” is almost never encountered. “From thence” keeps its head down these days and is rarely spotted in the wild.

The bottom line on the “whence” versus “from whence” question is the same as that in a hundred other usage questions. There’s nothing really “wrong” with “from whence,” and it’s attained the status of a common idiom in the minds of many literate people. The only question is whether you satisfy the sticklers with a simple naked “whence,” or risk their wrath but ensure comprehension in your audience by going with “from whence.”

1 comment to Whence/Hence/Thence

  • Stephen Parsons

    Let’s also not forget their complements, whither, hither, and thither: to where, to here, and to there, respectively. I’ve loved all these since taking high school German where (some of) their equivalents are common or even required in modern usage: woher=whence, wohin=whither (wo=[at] where); daher=hence ….

    Speaking of German, their notion of “separable prefixes” on verbs made a lot of sense out of many adverbial constructions in English. For example, the verb “aufstehen” means “stand up”. When used in a non-infinitive form, the prefix breaks off like “steh auf!” (stand up!). Similarly “aufwecken” becomes “weck auf!” (wake up!). [Common classroom phrases? ;-)]

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