The Word ‘Whence’ is Pretty Much Always Used Incorrectly
Today I found out that the word ‘whence’ is pretty much always used incorrectly, especially by modern day writers.
For example, (from the Lord of the Rings, spoken by Elrond): “The Ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom; only there can it be unmade. It must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came.”
So why is this wrong? ‘Whence’ actually means “from where” or “from what place”; so what was said above was, “It must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from from where it came.” ‘Whence’ implies a “from” already; so preceding it with ‘from’, which is commonly done, is redundant. This is the principal advantage of using a word like “whence” instead of just saying “from where”; it implies the “from” already.
This is very similar to “hence” which, if used to refer to time or location, has an implied “from”: “from this place” or “from this time”. For example: “I shall go hence.”; meaning “I shall go from here”.
It isn’t just now-a-days that this has been commonly misused either. Grammar Nazis have been long enraged about the “from whence” faux pas since as early as the thirteenth century.
Whence did this first start popping up? There are numerous examples of the “from whence” usage in works by Shakespeare, Defoe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and even several in the King James Bible.
So just remember:
‘from whence’ = ‘from from where’ = bad
‘whence’ = ‘from where’ = good
Of course, given that people have been using whence “incorrectly” for many hundreds of years and this faux pas is fairly common today, it could be argued that this isn’t technically incorrect at all, just a little redundant. But how else are Grammar Nazis supposed to demonstrate smugly superior linguistic intellects in internet comments if we don’t nitpick these sorts of things? Hmmm?!? *Grammar Nazi’s of the World Unite!* (Yes, I know. ;-))
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- What is a Tarnation?
- Split Infinitives are Not Incorrect Grammatically
- Did English Speakers Really Not Use Contractions in the 19th Century as Depicted in True Grit?
- The Difference Between an Acronym and an Initialism
- What is a Kudo, as in “Kudos to You”?
|Share the Knowledge!|
Is that apostrophe in “Nazi’s” satirical?
He would like us to think so now that he realized what he’d typed.
At best he would have realised what he’d typed, as “realized” is not a word.
It is in standard American English. Just as we have differences in color/colour, neighbor/neighbour, and other words, there’s this: http://grammarist.com/spelling/realise-realize/.
American English is the dumbed down version of English
Xiao Li how is American English “dumbed down” for spelling a word faithfully to the original AND to the way it is pronounced? “Realize“/“Realise” is pronounced in both General North American and British Received Pronunciation as [ˈɹɪə.laɪz] with voiced alveolar fricative [z], not voiceless [s]. (Also helpfully matches the International Phonetic Alphabet.)
The spelling “-ize” comes directly from Latin “-izō” (infinitive “-izāre”) ultimately from Ancient Greek -ῐ́ζω (-ízō). That is, with «Ζζ» (Zeta), NOT «Σσς» (Sigma).
Compare Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, and Occitan «realizar”, Catalan «realitzar», Italian «realizzare», Sicilian «realizzari», Romanian «a realiza», etc.
Only in French was the Vulgar Latin form adapted to fit rules of French phonology as in «réaliser». In French orthography, intervocalic /s/ is pronounced as /z/ so it makes sense.
French orthographic use of letter Z for [z] sound is uncommon except in initial positions in later borrowings like «zèbre» from Portuguese «zebra» and «zéro» from Italian «zero».
Especially rare to use Z in intervocalic position e.g. French «gazette», unique late borrowing from Italian «gazzetta», Venetian «gazeta (dele novità)».
There is no reason for English to imitate the French (via Old French and Middle French to match uniquely French orthographic conventions) rather than the original Latin source words/forms, derived from the original Greek spelling of the source words/forms.
That is like saying it is “dumbed down“ to read something in the original language rather than a translation of a translation…
Grammer Nazis. Not punctuation Nazis 😉
punctuation is an aspect of *grammar*, as is spelling.
“Grammar nazi’s” = FAIL
@Grammar nazi: It was meant to be ironical; little grammar nazi humor there 😉
“Ironical” is bad grammar.
@Rcsprinter: Not really. While “ironical” is more common in Britain than America, either “ironic” or “ironical” are accepted forms in most grammar guides.
Ironical is not used in Britain at all.
@Chris: If even one instance can be found where it is, your statement is incorrect. 😉 In any event, my statement wasn’t to say that it was more common than ironic, but that British people use ironical more than Americans do, which is true according to the British National Corpus which shows Americans using it in favor of ironic at about a 1 to 32 ratio, and the British at about a 1 to 8. In both cases, it’s much less common than ironic, but very clearly the British use it more commonly than Americans.
So, now we’re talking about ironicalizificationalism 🙂
That makes me think of the word conversate. Just because it’s used, doesn’t mean it’s right
“Ironical” is Standard English. There is simply no way it can be compared with “conservate”. Ironical has always been used by the best of writers. Both “ironical” and “ironic” are Standard English.
Okay, but then again, since we develop our own language as a culture, why can’t we just change the rule? If it is so commonplace that even Dickens and Mark Twain make the error, can’t we just say screw it, and forget this ridiculous rule?
Too bad you are retarded in the grammar department.
“Grammar Nazi’s, Unite!”. Grammar Nazi’s what?
I believe that Nazi does not have an apostrophe when pluralized. The word you’re looking for is “Nazis.”
“Nazi’s” is the possessive form.
I thought it was obvious that “Grammar Nazi’s” was supposed to be ironical.
GRAMMAR NAZI SENSE OF HUMOR FAIL 😉
Maybe the apostrophe replaced “onalist”.
I think it just means that those who are owned by Grammar Nazis should unite. Right?
But if Shakespeare used it, then it’s can’t be wrong….
Anyway, I do agree with you on all other accounts.
Shakespeare and his family had numerous ways of spelling their own surname, none of which was the modern spelling of “Shakespeare” exactly as it appears today. 😛 How’s that for wrong?
as a werd nerd of the “language evolves” school, if it goes back to the 13th century, when we were in the middle english phase, perhaps vernacular trumps. just a thought, i guess, but really, if languages stop evolving, they become the same as latin. that is to say, dead.
Words are defined by their usage, not what someone said they meant a long time ago.
@Alex – no, that doesn’t wash. There still has to be convention for word usage or the meaning gets lost in translation. This is akin to the argument that punctuation doesn’t matter. Consider the following where the punctuation it vital to the meaning of the sentence:
“I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse”
“I helped my uncle jack off a horse”
Also, there is no such word as “ironical”. The word is “ironic”.
Ooo, bad example. The second example, I’m afraid, is the more grammatically correct form. You don’t make the modifier of the subject (in that case “Jack,” with “my uncle” as the subject) unless it’s two or more words long. So “I helped my uncle Jack off a horse” is correct, as is “I helped Jack, my uncle, off a horse.” However, “I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse” technically isn’t.
“Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” would have been a better example to use. 😉
*Grammar Nazi’s of the World Unite!*
Apostrophe not needed.
@Taylor ~ is “Yes, Bob, I do have paper.” correct form then? Just curious. Never knew the rule of one word as the modifier. Thanks.
So… You know that you used the apostrophe wrong in “Grammar Nazi’s”?
/joking of course
You threw in “hence” as bing in a way halfway related, but I’m surprised that in an article that covers “whence,” you didn’t mention “whither.”
The example you used is correct, but it isn’t the same type of sentence as the above examples. In your sentence, Bob isn’t modifying or naming anything, it’s just an interjection; the other sentence was naming the uncle as Jack.
If you just smeared a bunch of words on a page you would not necessarily communicate your message very clearly.
The conventions of grammar and punctuation serve as road signs that make dialogue possible. I deliberately choose the word dialogue (rather than communication)for obvious reasons, I hope.
I wrote documents that would not be translated but were intended for international audiences. It made me more sensitive to the sloppiness of our regional dialects. My rule was that my reader should be able to look up each word in translation dictionary (e.g., English-French) and find a narrow enough definition to understand my message.
Recommended web site: The Apostrophe Protection Society at http://www.apostrophe.org.uk
I typically support the “language evolves” idea. Words do not control us. Grammar sets a standard for clear communication so that ideas can be more easily conveyed. Grammar originated as an auditory phenomenon, and punctuation is a tool which helps add inflection, rhythm, and other dimensions of speech which cannot be conveyed with words. The actual words used are far less important than how they are said, where the emphasis is put, or even body language.
Using a word incorrectly when people are accustomed to hearing it used incorrectly is not the downfall of language.
not a grammar nazi’ … but in the sentence:
“I helped my uncle jack off a horse” …
why wouldn’t this need to be:
“I helped my uncle jack off “OF” a horse” ?
just wondering… (i like ellipsis points) …
“This is the principle advantage of using a word like ‘whence’ instead of just saying ‘from where’; it implies the ‘from’ already.”
Of course, you meant “principal,” not “principle.”
@Scot: 26,000+ people have viewed this post in the over two years it’s been up and you’re the first to spot that glaring typo. The Grammar Nazis of the world are slipping apparently. 😉 Thanks!
“Whence did this first start popping up?”
Ending a sentence with a preposition. You also committed the same grammar faux pas as you’re writing about… 🙂 You added “up” to what was already established. “Whence did this first start popping?” would be awkward, but not redundant. 🙂
@Jeff Cleveland: There’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. 😉
Mum, why did you bring that book about “Down Under” up for?
Attributed to Winston Churchill as a boy, 5 prepositions in a row at the end of a sentence.
Yes, you should not end a sentence with “up”. Wait. What?
The correct form is ” . . . off the horse.” The reason is that “off” and “of” are both prepositions and a preposition is never followed by another preposition. “Off of” is always wrong.
Out of curiosity, are “out” and “of” an exception to this rule?
Here’s a good write-up on the whole “off of” thing: On Off Of
Interestingly in Singlish off a horse would mean to kill the horse.
That makes sense. My wife is Singaporean, and at night she often asks me, “Should I off the light?”
Many of my Indonesian friends speak of “killing the light” which corresponds directly to what they would say in Indonesian–“Matiin lampunya dong” for “Please turn off the light” in informal Indonesian or “Silakhan mematikan lampu” for more formal Indonesian.
If there are any Indonesians here, I would be happy if they could correct my Indonesian if I am incorrect since I was not raised or schooled in Indonesia. I learned it late in life from family and friends at church.
Would it be more correct to write “… pretty much always used wrongly?”
And if it is “always”, can it be “pretty much” at the same time? Perhaps “often” was meant.
Is it permitted to use redundant words to ease pronunciation, for dramatic effect, or for rhetorical reasons?
And if for centuries the native speakers of a language have used a certain phrasing or construction, is it reasonable to suppose that those whose credentials are less substantial know better?
David, in your first paragraph, I think you mean ‘wrongly’, not ‘wrong’. Whence is frequently used wrongly, would be a better way to phrase it.
*Disclaimer: any grammar mistakes I make here should be attributed to the fact that I’m not a native speaker. I’ll still be happy to have them be pointed out*
Are you aware to the fact that LotR’s author, Tolkien, was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, apart of inventing several languages himself? I think that if he employs a certain structure, it makes it part of the language.
Also, are you quoting Tolkien or the movie?
Although sometimes criticized as redundant on the grounds that “from” is implied by the word whence, the idiom from whence is old in the language, well established, and standard. Among its users are the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dryden, and Dickens: Hilary finally settled in Paris, from whence she bombarded us with letters, postcards, and sketches. From thence, a parallel construction, occurs infrequently.
As with many other grammatical issues, prescriptivists may be thinking about this in a wrotng-headed way. If examples of “from whence,” date back to the 13th century and are to be found in the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dryden, etc., it makes much more sense to say that this usage is correct and that the rule is wrong or incomplete. You can find a similar history of usage behind “less” in conjunction with count nouns: It dates back to King Alfred and the very origin of the language. Many of these rules came about simply because some guy from the eighteenth century, perhaps in an effort to rationalize the language, said so, more or less arbitrarily, or perhaps to give a sanction to the particular dialect of his place/class.
as interesting as that sounds, J.R.R Tolkien was an Oxford professor and was a scholar in Old English. 1 of his 1st jobs, believe it or not, was actually for the Oxford English Dictionary, studying the etymology of words of Germanic origin that began with W!!
That pretty much covers the word “Whence”.
Therefore, I am pretty confident that Mr. Tolkien knew how to use it correctly in a sentence
While I have multiple reactions to this (such as, ‘hey now, I never knew that’ and ‘language evolves as it should’ and ‘if billy shakespeare is on board, so am I’) I just have to point out that your informational rant is basically stemming from a distaste for redundancy (fair), but you are guilty of the same crime: “Whence did this first start popping up?” ‘First start’ is equally redundant as ‘from whence’. Fair?
Lost in the fog of this debate is the fact that “whence” is an archaic word that has disappeared from modern speech and has no place in modern writing except to produce an archaic effect–in which case you’ll be historically authentic either way you use it.
This article is incorrect.
“From whence” is standard English. “Whence” alone may be used in its place, but neither are incorrect usage.
“From whence” can be found in the “King James Version” of the Bible (e.g. James 4:1) and from Shakespeare (MacBeth: Act 4 Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet: Act 1 Scene 1, Sonnet 48, etc.), both of which defined the early modern English language.
I.m.o., a few argumentative mistakes are being made in the comment section. 1) The fact that someone misspells a word – Nazi’s, be it done so ironically or not – does not make ‘from whence’ less inaccurate. This is a fallacy known as ‘Tu quoque’, meaning in this case that a spelling mistake made by someone saying he found a mistake somewhere else, does not change the accuracy or truth of the observation he did in the first place. 2) The fact that Shakespeare or the King James version of whatever or JC himself uses ‘From whence’ does not make ‘from whence’ itself less inaccurate. This is a fallacy known as ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’, in which someone tries to convince the audience of an argument by leaning on authority. [Sorry for spelling mistakes, still in the process of learning to speak and write proper English since it’s not my first language.]
In general the “appealing to authority” comment would be valid, but it really isn’t in this case, because English is an evolving language that, at one time, had multiple ways to say things and several different ways that may or may not be correct. Shakespeare, and the King James version of the Bible, are in fact some of the contributors to creating early modern English which evolved into what we use today. Shakespeare in fact the first written source of several words we use in English today, including “addiction”, “eventful”, “fashionable”, “manager”, “uncomfortable”, and “eyeball”. He is by no means the “father of the English language” but was a tremendous contributor to how the language is used, and to accuse him of “using English grammar wrong” is to misunderstand his importance to the evolution of English as a written language.
If you know Russian, “Whence?” translates as “Откуда?”, “Thence” as “Оттуда” and “Hence” as “Отсюда”.
This is false and poorly written.
And even a brief look at historical sources shows that from whence has been common since the thirteenth century. It has been used by Shakespeare, Defoe (in the opening of Robinson Crusoe: “He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York; from whence he had married my mother”), Smollett, Dickens (in A Christmas Carol: “He began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine”), Dryden, Gibbon, Twain (in Innocents Abroad: “He traveled all around, till at last he came to the place from whence he started”), and Trollope, and it appears 27 times in the King James Bible (including Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”).
Whence, thence, hence all have “from” included in the meaning (where, there and here), just as whither, thither and hither all include “to”. They may be old but are not yet archaic.
While the use of “from whence” may not be incorrect and may well have been used by respected writers, the “from” is still definitely redundant and unnecessary.
I laughed when I first saw the “capital letters can be important” example about Uncle Jack, yet I feel from comments above that some have missed its point.
Perhaps if we restated the examples without commas: “I helped my Uncle Jack off his horse” as compared to “I helped my uncle jack off his horse”.
(BTW, one can get off a horse and be helped off a horse etc. without being helped off of a horse)
(also, many outside America may not understand the second example, we use other words for this).
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professional linguist and also master of Anglo-saxon literature. So I do not believe he made such a mistake. Thus, you need to take this information into consideration:
—Usage note Although sometimes criticized as redundant on the grounds that “from” is implied by the word whence, the idiom from whence is old in the language, well established, and standard. Among its users are the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dryden, and Dickens: Hilary finally settled in Paris, from whence she bombarded us with letters, postcards, and sketches. From thence, a parallel construction, occurs infrequently.
I had a mathematics professor teaching upper-level courses who used “whence” a lot when he meant “hence,” as in “and so 2x=8 hence x=4,” except he used “whence.” (Of course being an upper-level course the mathematics was a lot more esoteric but you get the idea.) Coming across this posting and doing a little more research I see that perhaps “whence” was used incorrectly by my professor, though it kind of sounded good.
On the other hand, pulling down a 1934, twenty-poundish old unabridged Webster’s I’m seeing “whence” as being a bit more flexible. Apparently in 1934 “from whence” was considered standard enough (language not always being smart-aleck logical), though their entry does acknowledge “sometimes with a redundant from or, formerly, of.”
Furthermore, there’s this definition:
3. Upon which ground; by reason of or in consequence of which fact, particular, etc.; wherefore; as, he was merciless toward opponents, whence he was called the Tiger.
I’m assuming that in that final example “whence” was used like “hence,” when the latter is used to indicate an antecedent/consequent relationship. It seems like the implication arrow goes merciless => called Tiger, not the other way around.
As fun as it all is, I think I’ll stick to mathematics. (Heck, I think one of my colleagues in the Language Arts department would take umbrage in the use of “etc.” above, so what do dictionary writers know either?)
I think that you ‘protest too much.’ If ‘whence’ has been used, as you assert, incorrectly since the writing or translating of the Bible, then I think it should be left alone. That alone should shift the archaic meaning of ‘from from’ to the now commonly used meaning.
For Heaven’s sake: ‘Alright’ is now acceptable in written dialogue, and it’s only been around for a few decades. This is a glaring error and makes me cringe every time I see it. Some dictionaries even comment on it as being acceptable in informal writing.
So, I’d get off your high horse, jump on the bandwagon and leave ‘whence’ alone. I don’t care if it means ‘from from.’
Millions of headstones contain that word and nobody’s got an eraser big enough to correct all of them.
Leave ‘whence’ alone. Know where I’m coming whence?
Owww, that hurts my head … doubleplus ungood! “Know where I’m coming from where” … ow ow ow ow ow.
“Know from whence I am coming” would have been easier to handle. It’s still the popular “incorrect” usage, but used in the proper format. 😀
I am writing something for school and using the word “whence”. I did not put “from” directly in front of the word, but I was wondering if the sentence fragment “From the hell whence it came” is still correct. I know it is still redundant but I think it sounds okay, I just don’t want my English teacher to annoy me about it.
I have seen this use of “Nazi” before—shouldn’t it be “Fascist”? I consider “Nazi” to mean “German National Socialist”, while “Fascist”, to me, could be any sort of fascist.
@kamome: I like where your head’s at. 😉
“Grammar Fascist” really doesn’t have the same ring. Grammar nazi, safety nazi, all kinds of nazi things and it really has nothing to do with political beliefs or organizations; it instead is based on the popular image of nazis being extremely strict and overbearing.
First sentence: “… used wrong” is incorrect; it should be “used incorrectly”. Wrong is an adjective, while incorrectly is an adverb. In this case, the word is qualifying the verb “used”, therefore only an adverb is appropriate: “incorrectly”.
Whether it’s “correct” or not, I can’t see any reason ever to use “from whence.” The only good thing about “whence,” that I can see, is that it doesn’t require “from.” But if you are going to use “from,” then why not simply say, “from where”? It sounds a lot more natural to me. So, IMO: “from where” is generally preferable; “whence” is OK, if a bit pretentious and stilted; but “from whence” is just plain pointless.
Because I am pretentious and stilted. Not everyone wears t-shirts and hoodies to work along with a beard.
“Whence” is not pretentious … it’s archaic. There’s a difference. If someone walked around saying “thee” and “thou” instead of “you” would you call that pretentious? I’d just call it being silly. Nobody has a valid reason to use that word (whence) nowadays unless they are intentionally trying to sound “old-timey”. And in that vein, many fantasy stories intentionally use archaic language. Hence we get things like its (improper) usage in The Lord of the Rings.
The early english form of “On fleek”
Waaa haaa haaa, I got it right then 🙂 I didn’t put ‘from whence’. LOL.
It is is incorrect if used by morons who don’t know its meaning but ‘from whence’ becomes correct when used by Shakespeare, Tolkien or other legitimate geniuses who used it intentionally for poetic effect.
Therefore let’s use it again!
“Whence” is not a preposition, it is an adverb. It is a similar word to “where”, with the nuance that the location in question is the source or point of origin. So the short phrase “whence it came” can be interpreted as “from where it came”, “where it came from”, “the place it came from”, etc. However, unlike “from where”, “whence” itself is not a preposition, thus it is not incorrect grammar to place it after another preposition and say something like “the bird flew over whence it came”, or “the creature retreated to whence it came”. (This becomes clear if you interpret it as “the creature retreated to where it came from” rather than “the creature retreated to from where it came” which is bogus because those two particular prepositions cannot be combined.)
Saying “from whence it came” is redundant but not incorrect in this case since no grammatical rule has been broken. There are hundreds of instances in historical literature of “from whence” and I think it is absurd that modern day writers are critiquing usage of a historical word from early modern English. I think that 400-year old writings of Shakespeare and the Bible are probably better indicators of appropriate usage for a word that hasn’t been used commonly for hundreds of years than modern day people whose only exposure to the word is attempting to sound poetic like Shakespeare, while boosting their egos by thinking they know something about 400-year-old English that Shakespeare did not.
No offense to anyone who wrote this article and believes the arguments, but really this kind of thing belongs somewhere like “Snopes” because it is more of an urban legend than actual fact.
Tell that to Sir Walter Scott:
“To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”
Or to the translators of the King James Bible:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
It should be pointed out that “the fiery chasm from whence it came” is from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movie, not from the original book, which never uses “whence” with a preposition:
“Whence it came we did not at first perceive.”
“Whence came the hobbit’s ring?”
“But whence came the boat?”
“Whence do you come?”