Whence and Thence

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has a question about these two words:

Could you please shed some light on the usage of ‘whence and thence’ in a sentence? I read these words many times but want to learn their exact usage in sentence.

The words date from the early thirteenth century. In their original spellings, they were inflected adverbial forms ending in -s and meaning the following:

whence = ”from what place”
thence = “from that place”

For example:

Whens comyst thow, and whithir gost thow?—Genesis 16:8, Wycliffe Bible, 1382. (Whence come you, and whither go you?)

He departed thens, and cam in to his awne countre.—Mark 6, Tyndale Bible, 1526. (He departed thence and came into his own country.)

In time, the words’ origins were forgotten, the -s changed to -ce in order to retain the soft s sound, and some English speakers started adding an unnecessary from:

Begin from thence, where first Alphëus hides His wandring Stream.—Pope 1712.

From whence is this Fool?—Delany, 1720.

In modern usage, this redundant from is commonly added to whence and thence:

Republican leaders would be overwhelmed with delight if Trump, like Gulliver, decided to return from whence he came.—John Cassidy, The New Yorker, 2015.

And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.—John F. Kennedy, 1962.

“The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis or pupa, from thence into beauty.”—Anthony Hopkins/Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs, 1991.

However, many speakers know to use whence and thence without adding a from:

Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.—James Baldwin, 1962.

Later he [Peter Benenson] went on to Eton and thence to Balliol.—Dennis Sewell.

Thence is frequently encountered in official surveying and election records, as in this one from Hawaii:

Commencing corner Judd and Liliha Streets, thence along Liliha to King, thence to Asylum road, thence to the mountains, thence along a straight line representing a continuation of Judd St., thence along Judd to Liliha St.

Thence is also used figuratively to mean, “from that time,” as in the phrase from the Emancipation Proclamation:

That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Speakers who do not feel comfortable using such old-fashioned words can replace whence with “from where” or “where from,” and thence with “from that place” or “from that time.”

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2 Responses to “Whence and Thence”

  • Sally Bahner

    Methinks we should send whence and thence back to the Middle Ages along with amongst and whilst (unless you’re a Brit).

  • venqax

    No. Economy of words is important. Among and while have no reason to be (in SAE). Among and while mean the same things. But whence means “from where”. Thence means “from there.” No other words mean those things. Synonymity requires 2 words, or more. Whence came the idea that these words were no longer helpful? Don’t know. But thenceforward the language has been more wordier verbally. And that is not good communication-wise. Hertofore we’ve been lacking. Henceforth we should revive them.

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