Q: I was reading Pepys’s diary and saw the word “thence” used time and time again. What’s the correct way to use it today?
A: I don’t think there’s a correct way to use “thence” now, except perhaps to make a humorous point. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, describes it as an archaism that should be avoided “unless you’re being jocular.”
“Thence” means “from that place” (as in “I went to the opera and thence home”). But it can also mean “from that time” or “from that fact or circumstance” or “from here” (as in “the house is ten miles thence”).
This is a dusty old expression, like “hence,” “whence,” and “thither,” and it’s rarely heard or read today in ordinary American usage. I can’t speak for the Brits, but I don’t suppose they use “thence” much either.
You do find “thence,” however, in things like legal documents, border treaties, property descriptions, and such. You can also find it in religious writing, like the Roman Catholic catechism: “From thence he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
The term is quite old, dating from the late 1200s. Here’s an example from a June 2, 1665, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Thence to visit the Duke of Albemarle, and thence my Lady Sandwich and Lord Crew.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says “thence” is now chiefly literary. The last published reference in the dictionary is an 1895 report of a ship’s leaving Liverpool “on a voyage thence to Melbourne.”
The OED describes the phrase “from thence,” as redundant (remember, “from” is part of the meaning of “thence”).
But the dictionary then goes on to list citations from the 14th to 19th centuries for “thence” used in just that redundant way. Here’s a 1703 example from Pope: “Begin from thence, where first Alpheus hides His wand’ring stream.”
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