Tuesday, May 11, 2004

On 'Whence'

I have been reading a study of the work of the American novelist John Gardner (1933-1982). The study’s author poses the following question in the Introduction: “From whence does our sense of physical and moral order come, and what is the ontological status of that order?” I cite
this only to make the pedantic point that ‘from whence’ is bad English: ‘whence’ in its main use, the one operative here, means from where; so ‘from whence’ means from from where. This is a redundancy only Al Franken could love.

The author’s mistake comes from trying to combine high-falutin’ talk with the more vulgar kind. I like high-brow English myself, so I would render the first half of the author’s sentence as Whence our sense of physical and moral order . . . . Or he could have written: Where does our sense of physical and moral order come from . . . . One or the other but no mixing of the two.