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From whence

Q From Marty Robinson: Last week you quoted Sir Christopher Wren as referring to ‘The Ailes, from whence arise Bows or Flying Buttresses to the Walls of the Navis.’ I’m sorry to learn that Sir Christopher used the redundancy from whence.

A This is another of those grammatical shibboleths, like avoiding a plural verb with none or not splitting one’s infinitives, that are open to linguistic debate, to put it mildly. The argument against this form is that whence already includes the idea of coming from some place, so that including from makes it tautological.

The debate is complicated by the fact that whence is not that common a word these days, being rather literary; I had trouble finding a modern example that wasn’t prefixed by from. This is from Newsday of 11 November 2004: “He is a legendary figure in his native England, whence I have just returned.” That’s a good example of the “proper” use.

Objectors to from whence have support in logic, but logic doesn’t feature much in English constructions, especially idioms, which is how one perhaps should regard the phrase these days. One newspaper archive I consulted, hardly comprehensive, contained more than 250 cases of from whence just in 2004. It succeeds because it is informal and colloquial compared with whence used alone, a construction that is unusual enough to force readers to stop and work out the meaning.

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”).

Though Dr Johnson objected to it in his Dictionary of 1755, calling it “A vicious mode of speech” (he meant it was reprehensible, not depraved or savage), most objections to it are no earlier than the twentieth century. One reason may be that its critics are unaware of its long pedigree.

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Page created 11 Dec 2004