English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

At the instance of a reader

Q: My boss and I have a disagreement about the phrase “at my instance,” which I think should be “at my insistence.” The first time he wrote “at my instance,” I thought it was an auto-corrected version of “at my insistence,” but he insists it’s a common phrase.  I’ve never heard it before, and to me, it grates. Who’s right?

A: Your boss is using “instance” correctly, though it’s not an everyday usage in American or British English.

The phrase “at the instance of” means something like “at the urging of,” “at the suggestion of,” or as you propose, “at the insistence of.”

Today, this sense of “instance” is found chiefly in legal documents, legislative transcripts, and formal business correspondence.

Oxford Dictionaries online includes this example: “In criminal causes, an appeal lies to the House of Lords at the instance of the defendant or prosecutor.”

Although four of the five standard dictionaries we’ve checked include “at the instance of,” the expression is no longer common in ordinary usage in the US or the UK. It still turns up, however, in everyday African and Indian English.

This meaning of “instance” has been in use since the 14th century. Here are a few representative examples of the exact phrase you asked about (“at my instance”) that we found in online searches:

1742: “It was at my instance that he was first made a page, then a querry [equerry], and afterwards groom of the bed-chamber to the Prince” (from a memoir by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough).

1852: “At my instance he called on me several times, and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen” (from a Baltimore editor’s reminiscence of Edgar Allan Poe).

1886: “In 1878, at my instance and largely through my efforts, the present Trades Assembly of Chicago and vicinity was organized” (from Autobiography of Albert R. Parsons).

2006: “At my instance we did a reorganisation that improved matters but unfortunately did not eliminate delays completely” (from The Story of My Life, by the Nigerian novelist T. M. Aluko).

2013: “His vision had become impaired and only the day before, at my instance, he had got his eyes examined by Dr. B. S. Rathke” (from an interview in an Indian daily newspaper, The Hindu.)

So how did an “instance” come to mean an urging or an entreaty? The story begins with the Latin verb instare, which means to be present—literally to stand (stare) upon (in-).

By extension, the notion of being present, at hand, or on the spot came to imply urgency, as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Latin derivatives of instare reflect this complexity—like instantia (presence, urgency, a judicial pleading, an objection) and instantem (present, pressing, urgent).

In medieval times, Old French borrowings from the Latin included instancier (to plead), instant (imminent), and instance (eagerness, anxiety, solicitation, objection).

It was the Old French noun instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that gave us the English “instance,” meaning an entreaty or an “urgency in speech or action.”

This sense of the word is now archaic, the OED says, except in the phrase “at the instance of (a person),” which means “at the solicitation, suit, instigation, or suggestion of.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from Prose Treatise (circa 1340), by the Yorkshire hermit and mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole: “At þe prayere and instaunce of oþer.”

And here’s a 19th-century citation: “The Emperor, at the Pope’s instance summoned Flavianus to Rome” (from Robert Hussey’s The Rise of Papal Power, 1851).

As we said, the noun “instance” has died away except in such phrases. In fact, most senses of the noun are now obsolete.

A notable exception is the use of “instance” to mean an example or illustration, a sense that came into English writing in the late 16th century.

The earliest such usage in the OED is from Angell Day’s The English Secretorie (1592), a letter-writing manual: “I will but giue you an instance of the same.”

This is the noun we use in the phrase “for instance,” which dates from the mid-17th century.

(We wrote a post in 2012 about “for instance” versus “for example,” and a post in 2011 about “instance,” “incident,” “incidence.”)

Oxford’s first written example of “for instance” is from Richard Ligon’s A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657): “The proof of this I found, by looking on the Stars. … For instance; There is a little Star, called Auriga [etc.].”

As a verb, too, “instance” is all but dead. One sense of the verb, to urge or entreat, has died out; another, to cite as an example, is still with us though seldom used today.

Here’s a 19th-century illustration of the latter usage, cited in Oxford: “I may instance olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants” (from Benjamin Jowett’s 1871 translation of Plato’s Dialogues).

Finally, since your boss uses “at my instance” in his official correspondence, you may be interested in a related business usage that has a venerable history, but isn’t seen much these days.

Since the mid-16th century, the word “instant”—in this case meaning “present”—has been used by letter writers to mean “of the current month.” So, as the OED explains, “the 10th instant” means “the tenth day of the current month.”

When the usage is seen, it’s generally abbreviated (“I received your invoice of the 15th inst.”). Similarly, “ult.” (for “ultimo”) means “of last month” and “prox.” (for “proximo”) means “of next month.”

When we see these terms now, they evoke images of ink-stained clerks copying letters by lamp light.

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