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I've come across instances where I felt using both was just fine. The dictionary definition doesn't provide much clarity either. Could someone please clarify the differences between the two?

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This is far too open-ended a question. You’re going to have to tell us what it is you think those both mean, and give examples of how you would like to use them, and then explain just what part of all that you are having a problem with. – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 1:30
You will never understand these words until you realize there are three sets of three: hence, thence, whence; here, there, where; hither, thither, whither. The three “starts” of wh-, th-, h- combine meaningfully with the three “ends” of -ence, -here, -ither to form 9 distinct and special words. – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 1:46
@tchrist: It's three sets of four -- don't forget when, then, now; and it's a paradigm, so it's really a form/function mapping, a "double articulation", as Saussure called it. – John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 15:45
@JohnLawler You’re right that I forgot when and then and . . . and . . . um, and hen. :) Yeah, yeah: I know you can find faint vestiges of adverbial hen if you look hard enough: “OE. *hionane, hionan = OS. and OHG. hinana, hinan, MDutch henen, MHG. hinnen, hinne, Ger. hinnen; cf. also OHG. hina, MHG. hine, hin, Ger. hin, MLG. hen, MDutch hēne, hin, Dutch heen; adverbial formations from root hi- ‘this’, of he pron. The various OE. types gave a great number of forms in ME., all which are now obsolete, leaving only the later extended form henne-s, hen-s, hence, and the Sc. hyne.” – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 15:50
The point of the quiz question I linked to, of course, was that the irregularity of now illustrates the difference between the formal paradigm (where it stands out like a sore thumb) and the functional paradigm (where it's entirely unexceptionable, indeed more regular than many of the modern meanings of the words in the paradigm). I've often thought of extending this paradigm to demonstratives and other interrogative/relatives, but that'd take more than two dimensions and you can't do that in a 10-minute quiz. – John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 16:00
up vote -1 down vote accepted

"Lift thine eyes to the mountains,

whence cometh help.

Thy help cometh from the Lord,

the maker of heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1 KJV)

Whence is an old-fashioned word for where, or from where.

Hence, on the other hand, is best illustrated with a bit of algebra: X is > Y; Z is < Y; hence, X is > Z. Hence means therefore.

"I'm sorry, but I simply ran out of time; hence, I couldn't pick up your dry cleaning for you."

"Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?"

Jonah's shipmates wondered what he had done to bring the calamity of a great storm upon them. Since he was a stranger, they simply assumed it was his fault. Hence, they asked him, "Hey, from whence comest thou?" See Jonah 1:8 KJV.

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+1 for the algebra. So does that mean whence shouldn't be used in modern language? – user33051 Mar 30 '13 at 1:40
Hm, it’s much more complicated than that. Hence means “from here/now/this point”, while whence means “from where/which”. Consider: “Vengeance calls me hence, but even were it otherwise I would not dwell longer in the same land with the kin of my father’s slayer and of the thief of my treasure.”“‘Go hence, ’ he said, ‘unto a swift and bitter death.’” “Yet if there be any on whom the shadow of our curse has not yet fallen, I should find at least a few to follow me, and should not go hence as a beggar that is thrust from the gates.” “Yet we must move hence without more delay.” – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 1:41
Not to (not) mention: The worthies of Bree will be discussing it a hundred years hence. – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 1:43
It's part of a dead paradigm. I used to use it as an exam question. – John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 2:37
@tofu_bacon: Not unless you are quoting Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible. You will hear the occasional "hence," even in modern language usage, though not likely among hoi polloi. – rhetorician Mar 30 '13 at 4:06

As @tchrist comments, you need to consider the three sets of three:...

here, there, where;
hence, thence, whence;
hither, thither, whither

But in practice the last set are pretty dated/archaic forms in all contexts, and the middle set are normally only used metaphorically today.

Once you stop to think about the fact that the usage is metaphoric, it should become clear. Here are some written instances from Google Books...

([here is] some stated fact) hence we derive (some other fact) (i.e. - "from this fact here")
(some statement) thence we derive (some fact) (i.e. - "from that statement you just read there")
(some statement) whence we derive (some fact) (i.e. - whence=wherefrom)

You won't come across whence so often these days, but (as I hope those examples illustrate) it can sometimes be used in contexts where either or both the others would be perfectly acceptable.

Since the usages are all metaphoric, the "location" of the "statement" (or thing referenced by the statement) is somewhat uncertain. In speech/physical space, the difference between "There it is!" and "Here it is!" may simply depend on whether you're pointing a finger or spreading your hands as you speak.

But at any point within a written text, here could encompass the entire book you're reading, and there could mean just the previous sentence or clause. And where/wherefrom/whence can always refer to anything written previously (normally, the immediately-preceding statement).

To sum it all up - if you're not sure which to use, stick with the most common form (hence). If there's a strong sense of from there or from where in your context, use thence or whence.

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