The Word ‘Whence’ is Pretty Much Always Used Incorrectly

Daven Hiskey 47
Today I found out that the word ‘whence’ is pretty much always used wrong, 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” incorrect 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

*Grammar Nazi’s of the World Unite!*

(edit: Grammar Nazis: you guys are awesome at editing my articles for me, finding my typos and what not, but for the love of God read the comments before trying to be the 342,212th Grammar Nazi to post a comment on the above “Nazi’s” apostrophe usage.  I should have thought the irony of it would have been obvious; barring that, the 342,211 comments below on that apostrophe should have clued you in, but here we are.) ;-)

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47 Comments »

  1. Napoleon Thunderpants January 27, 2010 at 4:08 am - Reply

    Is that apostrophe in “Nazi’s” satirical?

    • BBoheme November 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm - Reply

      He would like us to think so now that he realized what he’d typed.

  2. Daven Hiskey
    Daven January 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    @Napoleon: ;-)

  3. Grammar nazi February 2, 2010 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    “Grammar nazi’s” = FAIL

  4. Daven Hiskey
    Daven February 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    @Grammar nazi: It was meant to be ironical; little grammar nazi humor there ;-)

    • Rcsprinter November 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      “Ironical” is bad grammar.

      • Daven Hiskey
        Daven Hiskey November 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm - Reply

        @Rcsprinter: Not really. While “ironical” is more common in Britain than America, either “ironic” or “ironical” are accepted forms in most grammar guides.

  5. Gabes February 28, 2010 at 3:57 am - Reply

    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?

  6. Airy March 9, 2010 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    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.

    GRAMMAR FAIL

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven March 9, 2010 at 8:51 pm - Reply

      I thought it was obvious that “Grammar Nazi’s” was supposed to be ironical.

      GRAMMAR NAZI SENSE OF HUMOR FAIL ;-)

  7. Lenore March 10, 2010 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    But if Shakespeare used it, then it’s can’t be wrong….
    Can it?
    Anyway, I do agree with you on all other accounts.

    • A December 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm - Reply

      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. :P How’s that for wrong?

  8. Demented March 13, 2010 at 1:58 am - Reply

    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.

  9. alex March 25, 2010 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    Words are defined by their usage, not what someone said they meant a long time ago.

  10. Steve April 21, 2010 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    @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”.

  11. Taylor April 24, 2010 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    @Steve

    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. ;)

  12. 123 April 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    *Grammar Nazi’s of the World Unite!*
    Apostrophe not needed.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven April 29, 2010 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      @123: *whoosh*

  13. Lynne June 1, 2010 at 12:37 am - Reply

    @Taylor ~ is “Yes, Bob, I do have paper.” correct form then? Just curious. Never knew the rule of one word as the modifier. Thanks.

  14. Mike June 1, 2010 at 12:54 am - Reply

    So… You know that you used the apostrophe wrong in “Grammar Nazi’s”?

    /joking of course

  15. Jack Vermicelli June 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    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.”

  16. Chandler October 30, 2010 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    @Lynne:
    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.

  17. Janie November 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    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

  18. Matt November 19, 2010 at 7:53 am - Reply

    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.

  19. rich May 23, 2012 at 5:07 am - Reply

    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) …

  20. Scot October 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    “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.”

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey October 29, 2012 at 9:07 am - Reply

      @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!

  21. rick November 24, 2012 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    @rich
    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.

    • Becky February 19, 2014 at 1:46 pm - Reply

      Out of curiosity, are “out” and “of” an exception to this rule?

      • Daven Hiskey
        Daven Hiskey February 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm - Reply

        Here’s a good write-up on the whole “off of” thing: On Off Of

  22. Bob December 5, 2012 at 3:34 am - Reply

    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?

  23. Ian July 2, 2013 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    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.

  24. Yuri July 15, 2013 at 11:31 pm - Reply

    *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?

  25. serge October 23, 2013 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    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.

  26. Jack Ognistoff November 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    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.

  27. Matt November 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    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

  28. Holly December 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    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?

  29. Dave August 30, 2014 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    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.

  30. bostjan November 3, 2014 at 7:05 am - Reply

    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.

    Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/whence

  31. Martijn November 8, 2014 at 3:36 am - Reply

    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.]

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