Whence/Hence/Thence

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.”

Page 2 of 2 | Previous page

1 comment on this post.
  1. 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? ;-)]

Leave a comment