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I just saw a parody on the Lord of the Rings, where one of the characters says:

it must be cast back in the fire from whence it came!

This struck me as odd, since I expected them to say "whence it came"; but now I find that "from whence" seems to occur as well.

Does anybody know whether this is correct, or whether it has been correct at some point and subsequently fell into disgrace (or vice versa)?

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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I did some research using the Corpus of Historical American English, and it paints the following picture:

"whence" vs "from whence"

(X axis: year, Y axis: incidences per million words)

This shows that from whence has been in constant use all the way back to 1810 (that's how far the Corpus goes). Indeed, as the World Wide Words post already linked by Shaun says:

And even a brief look at historical sources shows that from whence has been common since the thirteenth century. It has been used by Shakespeare, Defoe (in the opening of Robinson Crusoe: “He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York; from whence he had married my mother”), Smollett, Dickens (in A Christmas Carol: “He began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine”), Dryden, Gibbon, Twain (in Innocents Abroad: “He traveled all around, till at last he came to the place from whence he started”), and Trollope, and it appears 27 times in the King James Bible (including Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”).

Emphasis added. (The King James Bible was completed in 1611).

As you can see from the above graph, from whence is on a steady decline; however, so is whence all on its own, so the graph isn't really that helpful. What we really want is the ratio:

Ratio graph

The values on the Y axis in this graph tell you how many times more often whence was used without from rather than with. So, around 1920, whence all by itself was roughly 10 times more popular than from whence; nowadays, on average, every second usage of whence is prefixed by a from, according to the Corpus.

In other words, from whence has been actually gaining "relative" popularity since 1920.

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Thanks for the link, I hadn’t heard of the COCA. Your final conclusion seems to coincide with Quinion’s remark that “from whence” has become idiomatic. I would make sense that, since fewer and fewer people use "whence", less people will know its meaning, and the tautology argument (as alluded to by Elendil) won’t apply anymore. –  Martijn Feb 1 '11 at 16:47
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+1 — very interesting usage graphs. –  PLL Feb 1 '11 at 21:19
    
Brilliant answer, particularly the graphs! Mind if I ask how/where you made them? Or should I say, "from whence" they came...? (No, I probably shouldn't :) ) –  Coldblackice Nov 21 '13 at 2:30
    
@Coldblackice I fed the COHA data to Google Spreadsheets, used its charting feature, and finally made some minor adjustments in GIMP (cropping and transparency). These days you could also use Google Ngrams. –  RegDwigнt Nov 21 '13 at 10:14
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Both 'whence' and 'from whence' are commonly used.

The addition of 'from' is a more recent addition ('whence' is first recorded circa 1300, 'whence from' 1568) but seems to be just as common. It might seem somewhat tautological given that most dictionaries list 'whence' as meaning 'from which place', but it is one of those phrases that has been used for so long it has become standard.

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“More recent”... Just, oh, almost 500 year ago. :-D But you’re right — like Quinion says: “Objectors to from whence have support in logic, but logic doesn’t feature much in English constructions, especially idioms”. –  Martijn Feb 1 '11 at 16:26
    
Hehe...indeed. To be fair there is a general break in usage of from until the 18th century. –  user3444 Feb 1 '11 at 16:33
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It is technically redundant to say from whence, since whence means from where. However, most modern usage of the word is prefixed with from.

It is a topic of heated debate in some circles.

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Thanks for the link to Michael Quinion; it’s always a pleasure to read his insights. I think “from whence” seemed odd to me (especially in this context) because Tolkien himself never uses “from” with “whence”. –  Martijn Feb 1 '11 at 16:16
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-1 for asserting that it’s “technically incorrect” on no grounds whatsoever. As you and Quinion point out, ‘from whence’ is somewhat redundant, and arguably illogical. So are many other correct features of the language, e.g. I have eaten. However, as Quinion’s piece and the other answers below point out, from whence has been accepted on and off as a minority usage for at least 400 years, appearing in (for example) the King James Bible, and consistently used since the 18th century. “Technically incorrect”? In 1400, perhaps, but certainly not today. –  PLL Feb 1 '11 at 21:13
    
"Technically incorrect" refers to the redundancy. Saying "from from where" is technically incorrect. The fact that it has entered common usage and acceptance doesn't change the fact that it's technically redundant. –  Shaun Feb 1 '11 at 21:38
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Indeed, ‘from from where’ is grammatically incorrect. But English is not a formally specified language; ‘whence’ is not always exactly equivalent to ‘from where’, and you can’t test for grammatical correctness by substituting in one for the other! An ‘piglet’, etymologically, means just ‘a small pig’; yet ‘a small piglet’ is not tautologous, nor ‘a large piglet’ an oxymoron. [cont’d] –  PLL Feb 1 '11 at 22:28
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There’s a larger debate one could get into here — prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, and what “grammatical correctness” really means and where it comes from. But even taking a pretty prescriptivist approach, grammatical correctness is much more complicated than just “substitute in the definition of a word, and see if that works”. In formal logical languages, that’s how correctness works; but in natural languages, things are rarely so logical. –  PLL Feb 1 '11 at 22:37
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The NOAD reports the following note about the use of from whence and whence:

USAGE Strictly speaking, whence means from what place, as in whence did you come? Thus, the preposition from in from whence did you come? is redundant and its use is considered incorrect by some. The use with from is very common, though, and has been used by reputable writers since the 14th century. It is now broadly accepted in standard English.

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It looks as if there has always been some doubt about whence versus from whence. The first edition of Wycliff's Psalms (1382) has:

I rered vp myn eȝen in to the mounteynes; whennys shal come helpe to me.

But the edition of 1388 has:

I reiside myn iyen to the hillis; fro whannus help schal come to me.

I can imagine 14th century grammarians having the same argument we're having now: "Nay! Thou canst nat say, fro whannus: yt lakketh gramer!"

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