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Whence vs. from whence

Whence, according to its conventional definition, means from where, so the phrase from whence is logically redundant. But this doesn’t stop people from using from whence, a phrase that has been common for centuries. When hearing the sentence Whence came you?, one may feel something is missing—specifically, a preposition—even though the sentence is well constructed without it. That’s why from whence is so often used instead of whence alone, as in these examples:

Without warning, he dissolves into the blackness from whence he came. [Backstage]

The tide changed, returned to from whence it came, and is rising. [CounterPunch]

What made the horror of Kittel’s antisemitism is not just the words but from whence the words came. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

Of course, redundancy hasn’t stopped great writers from using from whence for centuries—for example:

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From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part. [Shakespeare]

From whence it follows, that where the publique and private interest are most closely united, there is the publique most advanced. [Thomas Hobbes]

Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Other resources

“From whence” at World Wide Words
“The Whence Offense” at Columbia Journalism Review

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Comments

  1. Joep Lijnen says:

    I don’t think its logically redundant at all, Whence is a declension of the word we now almost exclusively use in its nominative form of ‘where’. While we can now choose between “from where” and “from whence”, originally only the latter construction was the grammatically correct- or at least preferable- form.

  2. kiwi-ian says:

    Whence, thence, hence. All mean from.

    Whither, thither and hither. All mean to.

    Not redundant, just resulting from an expanded vocabulary.

    A phrase, fortunately never frequently used and not at all since 1965 in Britain, that includes 2 of these (and hanged, not hung) came from judges meting out the death penalty (the wording was a little more modern in 1965) :

    “you shall be taken to the place whence you came and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you should be dead and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”.

    • Joshua Flash says:

      Whence – “from where.”
      Thence – “from there.”
      Hence – “from here.”

      Similarly,
      Whither – “to where.” (Whither shall I go from thy spirit?)
      Thither – “to there.” (Go thither, and with unattained eye.)
      Hither – “to here.” (Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.)

      So “from whence” is redundant. You can use these with the “to/where” and no one will notice but the ‘grammarists.’ We now commonly omit the “to” and take, for example, “come here” to mean “come to here” or “come hither.” Whereas we always include the “from” as in “go from here” instead of “go hence.” Presumably, the phrase “go there” was once logically ambiguous and could be taken to mean “go from there” or “go to there.” In this regard, the English language was arguably more sophisticated.

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