Where and Whence

By Maeve Maddox

A few years ago a TV special aired with the title “The From Whence We Came Awards.”

I don’t recall what the awards were for. I just remember reacting to the use of “from” with the word “whence.”

“Whence” is not synonymous with “where.”

Whence means “from what place/source/origin.”

Examples:

The wealthy man never forgot the poverty whence he came.
A stranger appeared in our midst. We know not whence he came.
Whence came these caterpillars?

Clearly, the use of “whence” in modern English is extremely limited. If you choose to use it, remember that the “from” is built in.

Where has the meaning “at what place” or “in what place.”

Unnecessary prepositions also show up with where.

One often hears “Where’s he at?” and “Where’d he go to?” instead of the more grammatical “Where is he?” and “Where did he go?

The unnecessary “to” is not as frequent as the added “at.” Perhaps the contraction of “where is” into “where’s” accounts for the speaker’s need to add the unnecessary “at” for balance.

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12 Responses to “Where and Whence”

  • Shankar Ganesh

    Thanks for this informative post.

    Your team at Daily Writing Tips rocks! Keep going, keep posting us on such wonderful stuff!

  • Daniel

    Shankar, thanks for the nice words!

  • Roshawn Dawson

    This is nice to know, although I rarely hear people using “whence.”

    Like Shankar said, Daily Writing Tips is a great resource for experienced and newbie writers. As long as you keep posting the good stuff, writers will keep reading. 🙂

  • Laura Bergells

    I use “from whence” — just because Sir Walter Scott did in the last lines of his poem “Native Land” (which I had to memorize in 5th grade!)

    Thirty some years later, and the line using “from whence” is still burned in my memory —

    “…And, doubly dying, shall go down –
    To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.”

    Perhaps the fame of this poem is why people like me persist in using “from whence” instead of “whence”. After all, we learned it in school — from a literary giant!

    Great blog, love reading it (I’m a subscriber!)

  • Maeve

    Laura –
    Oh dear! And he used “sprung” as a simple past!
    But then he needed the “from” for the syllable and the “sprung” for the rhyme.

    Just goes to show that writers have the latitude to make creative choices based on their purpose.
    (Just as painters have the liberty to paint melting clocks even when they know how to paint regular ones.)

    Thanks for the comment.

  • susanne kimball

    Roshawn writes: ” Like Shankar said…” It should be “As Shankar said…” “Like” is a preposition, “as” is a conjunction to be used in phrases containing a verb.

  • A Jones

    Hi Maeve, just to point out that although it may just be poetic licence, his use of ‘sprung’ in the simple past is perfectly correct Scottish English.

    In the traditional Scots language, one has the choice between the simple past tenses ‘sprang, sprung, sprank’ and for the past participle one can choose either ‘sprang or sprung’, so this usage has over time gradually crept into Standard Scottish English too.

  • p

    Hi nice post but you are misusing inverted commas as you are not literally speaking these words. “where’s” should be ‘where’s’.

  • John Boisa

    The issue of adding an “at” at the end of the sentence prompted an interesting comment from a former Russian teacher. In Russian, he taught, there are two different words to ask where something is. There is a generic word asking “where”, but a completely different word for asking for a specific location; “Where is it located?”. He suggested that we English speakers instinctively add the “at” because we want to emphasize exact location rather than the general whereabouts of something or someone.

    Example:

    “Where is the White House?” – Washington D.C.
    “Where is the White House at?” – 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

  • Christopher Benson

    I agree that “from whence” contains a redundancy. That does not totally proscribe its use, though. Those trying to send the phrase “from whence” to endless night usually cite its original Anglo-Saxon construction.

    It is Old English for “when’s”, the possessive form of “when” (“hwaenne”, also meaning “where”), but it is a late construction (circa Chaucer). By then the genitive case in Old English (like Greek much earlier) had absorbed the obsolete ablative case (still seen in Latin), along with the other locative cases of earlier languages. In particular, this construction is more accurately a vestige of the lative case than a canonical genitive case.

    That mumbo jumbo does confirm that “whence” includes a directional aspect, a trait shared with its counterparts from near and far, such as “thence”, “hither” and “thither” (and many other archaic words not “heretofore” mentioned).

    In certain contexts, it is acceptable to stress the directional aspect with a synonym. This is not restricted only to writers outside of England, or metric forms within a poem. It has been used regularly since Chaucer by people such as Tyndale, Dryden, Shakespeare [1], the King James Bible [2], Sir Walter Scott (thanks Laura), and Charles Dickens. Apart from Scott the Scot, none of those English English writers used “from” just as an extra syllable.

    But I stress that I agree with the article’s sentiment most of the time.

    [1] Sonnet 48: “Within the gentle closure of my breast,
    From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;”
    [2] Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

  • Christopher Benson

    Following on my claim that the redundancy in “from whence” doesn’t mean it cannot be used. I wanted to show the usefulness of te Google Ngram Viewer for seeing usage history. The graph below displays the count of appearances in all English publications since 1500 of:
    (a) (in red) the phrase “from whence”,
    (b) (in blue) the word “whence” not included in (a).
    The two counts are about equal from 1500 to 1800, but “from whence” has faded faster over the last 200 years.
    Ngram offers individual English variants (not shown). Usage in American English only is similar, but in British English, “from whence” has always been secondary, but not too far behind. A zoom to focus on just the last two decades of data (1988 – 2008) shows that the usage of “whence” (and “from whence”) has been INCREASING since 2000.

  • Vincent Burch

    “Whence” is actually part of a set of words that show English’s German roots. In German, the elements “hin” and “her” are attached to some prepositions, and to question words like “wo” to indicate direction. They mean to and from, respectively.

    In older English, the directional modification is applied to here, there, and where. Hither is to here, and hence is from here. Thither is to there, and thence is from there. Whither is to where, and whence is from where.

    Hither persists in the phrase, “come-hither look”, but most of the others are generally forgotten or only used in a sense of time, or logical steps, instead of place.

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