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Whence upon a time

Q: Until I saw this (and many others in Shakespeare), I was a from-is-redundant maven: “From whence thou cam’st, how tended on. But rest / Unquestion’d welcome and undoubted blest” – All’s Well That Ends Well. What say ye?

A: Well, the word “whence” does mean “from what place,” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, it’s “often preceded by redundant from.”

Indeed, “whence” has been in the language since about 1300, and it’s been dogged (or rather preceded) by “from” for almost as long.

For example, the OED has a couple of citations for plain old “whence” from the first English version of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

But one citation – “to the mounteynes; whennus shal come helpe to me” – was altered in a 1388 printing to read “… fro whannus shal come helpe to me.”

The OED notes that “from” is used, “more or less pleonastically, before hence, thence, whence, henceforth, etc.” The word “pleonastically” means superfluously or redundantly.

So what’s right? I agree with Robert Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, that the “best policy” is not to use “from” with “hence,” “thence,” and “whence.”

I also agree with the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) that nobody was bothered by the redundancy of “from whence” until the 18th century.

But clearly “whence” has an air of antiquity about it. And if you’re using a deliberately antique usage, why not use it in the antique way?

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