The Grammarphobia Blog

For “instance”

Q: I read your post on “incident” vs. “incidence,” and it made me curious about whether “instance” is related? All three words seem to have a lot in common.

A: Like “incident” and “incidence,” the word “instance” was borrowed from French and ultimately comes from Latin.  But “instance” is derived from a different Latin root. Here’s the story.

When “instance” first showed up in English in the 14th century, it referred to urgent pressure exerted in trying to get someone to do something.

That’s understandable, since the French instance then meant, among other things, eagerness, anxiety, and solicitation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word (circa 1340) is from a Middle English treatise by the religious writer Richard Rolle: “At the prayere and instaunce of other.” (The “th” in “the” and “other” was represented by a runic letter called a thorn.)

Although this urgent sense of the word is now considered obsolete, we do have a similar sense: instigation, urging, or request. Example: “I’m writing you at the instance of my client.”

Over the years, “instance” has taken on a lot of other meanings: an occurrence, a fact used to make a point, the present time, and so on.

The word “instance” is ultimately derived from the Latin instantia (presence or urgency), while “incident” and “incidence” come from the Latin incidere (to fall into, fall upon, happen).

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