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From Tor.com, an interesting use of the word hence:

Minutes ago, J.K. Rowling finally announced her plans behind Pottermore, the mysterious website that appeared a week hence with only a “Coming Soon” sign to warns readers and fans.

For me, the word hence can only be used to refer to times in the future, and the writer of the above quote should have used ago. However, hence is a pretty rare word, and it's possible that the past usage of hence is in fact standard, but I've never noticed it.

Is the past usage of hence sanctioned by any important authorities? Does it have a long tradition of usage? Or did the writer trip herself up trying to be fancy?

Update: The answers below all agree, but I'm looking for someone that can produce some actual evidence from usage or a respected authority. I've started a bounty with that in mind.

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I think it was simply a solecism. The writer of the sentence thinks "hence" means in the past. –  Robusto Jun 23 '11 at 14:22
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Given that the sentence in question has a typo in warns, I suspect no such authority will be found. –  MrHen Jul 16 '11 at 20:53
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It looked OK to me at first with "hence" being used like the less common "thence", but when reading the whole thing including the "ago" at the beginning, it's definitely just plain wrong. –  hippietrail Jul 27 '11 at 11:30

9 Answers 9

up vote 4 down vote accepted
+100

Evidence from dictionaries:

Hence, when applied to time, is defined as:

2. from this time; from now: They will leave a month hence.

There is not a shred of evidence in any dictionary or in common/traditional/standard usage that hence can be used to refer to the past. So, as it is unsanctioned by any important authorities, and unused, I would say this is a case of either misconception or mistake on the writer's part.

In the quote, ago is the proper word to replace hence with. It is possible that the writer confused hence with since, as since is sometimes used as a synonym of ago.

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There is also not a shred of evidence from that definition that it cannot be used to refer to the past. From now can go in either direction, temporally. –  Jon Purdy Jul 15 '11 at 14:31
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@Jon: There my argument rests on the fact that from now/from this time is never used for the past, either. Hence means from now, and neither hence nor from now are ever used for the past. I am making use of the strongest argument available to me when I argue from silence. The silence of dictionaries, and the silence of usage. It's always much easier to prove a positive than a negative. –  Daniel Jul 15 '11 at 14:39
    
@drm65: I'll have to agree with @Jon, though rare. See what OED has to say, and the examples given therefrom. Hopefully @JSBangs will consider that actual evidence from usage or a respected authority. –  Spare Oom Jul 18 '11 at 10:53

The definition and etymology show hence is meant to be a "future time"

I think it could be a typo for thence

from that time; thenceforth

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Unfortunately thence doesn't work in same way as hence. "A week thence" is not a valid way of saying anything much. –  user1579 Jun 23 '11 at 15:34
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@Rhodri: Yes, it is, it would mean 'from the announcement' rather than 'from the time of writing'. Pity that"minutes ago" proves that that's not what was meant. –  TimLymington Jun 23 '11 at 20:46
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@JoseK: Actually, though a week thence does make sense per se, it does not fit in this context. ...a week thence... - from what time? –  Daniel Jul 13 '11 at 15:05
    
@drm: I agree it's a mistaken use of hence in the article, my guess was if thence was from that time when the initial news of Pottermore broke - which was a week prior to it's actual launch –  JoseK Jul 13 '11 at 16:26
    
@JoseK: The only other mention of time in the quote was "Minutes ago..." With that as the only time antecedent, a week thence would only mean a week after minutes ago. There is no other way thence could possibly be used. I think it's obvious that the quote is saying that the mysterious website appeared a week ago, with only a "Coming Soon" message; and only minutes ago did Rowling announce her plans. –  Daniel Jul 15 '11 at 14:26

Garner's Modern American Usage has the following entry on hence:

This adverb has several meanings, listed here in decreasing order of frequency:

  1. "for this reason;therefore" your premise is flawed; hence, your argument fails
  2. "from this source" she grew up in Colorado: hence her interest in mountain climbing

  3. "from this time; from now" our anniversary is just two weeks hence

  4. "from this place; away" the park is three miles hence

It's clear, as others have noted, that the Tor.com writer mistakenly used hence in this third sense to describe something that occurred in the past. I wonder if the fourth use of hence might have led to this confusion. I assume that when hence is used spatially, as in the last example, that it can mean three miles in any direction and not imply a specific continued trajectory. If so, I can see someone applying this same logic temporally and referring to an incident as occurring a week away from this point in time in either direction, past or future—particularly if that person was a time traveller.

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I found this source, which cites the 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary via The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48. Emphasis added by me.

`2. From this time; in the future; as, a week hence. "Half an hour hence." --Shak.
[1913 Webster]

This is the only source I've found that specifically states that the time is in the future. It seems even the source word was ambiguous, meaning only "away from here" without specifying any (other) sort of directionality that might give us a clue.

Edit: I also have a notion about the time direction that is likely unprovable. Hence can also be used to mean something like "therefore." For instance, I ate garlic this morning hence the bad breath. In this sense, hence introduces the condition that follows the past event, so hence is associated with future time. Perhaps more clearly, hence moves us away from a point in the past (eating garlic) toward the present/future (having bad breath). Thus the arrow points forward in time, not backward.

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I have never heard of it being used to indicate a time in the past and can't find any support for it. I also agree it's simply a mistake.

It's possible that "since" was meant; I can't say I'm certain that it's correct usage, but I have seen it used to mean "ago".

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"Since" meaning "ago" is alive and well in Yorkshire, but it is archaic in standard Englishes. I agree with Robusto that the author was looking for a word meaning a relative "ago" and thought that "hence" would do. –  Colin Fine Jun 23 '11 at 17:11
    
@ColinFine: Hmm... is it really so rare outside Yorkshire? I think I've heard it occasionally. // Wherever I heard it, I think I interpreted it as "they buried her [and it's now] two weeks since [then]". –  Cerberus Jun 24 '11 at 4:44
    
@Cerberus: I've no doubt it goes beyond Yorkshire, but I don't know how widely. I would regard it as archaic in general use (indeed, when W. S. Gilbert wrote in Ruddigore in the 1880's "He died ten years since" I believe it was deliberately archaic or rustic). –  Colin Fine Jun 24 '11 at 15:13
    
@ColinFine: Yes it doesn't sound standard to me; I remember my confusion when I first heard it (it must have been long since). Rustic sounds appropriate (I'd never have guessed Yorkshire, but something provincial, yes). –  Cerberus Jun 24 '11 at 16:10
    
@ColinFine et al., I have to disagree. A week since is perfectly standard English. At least here, on the East Coast of the US, I here it in practical if not frequent use. Ago is certainly preferred. –  Ryan Jul 14 '11 at 21:20

The use of hence referring to past times is obscure and rare as mentioned in OED.

From OED via library online service (which I unfortunately can't link because it required my library card):

hence, adv.

II. Of time.

4.a. From this time onward, henceforward, henceforth. Also with from (†fro). arch. and poet.

but

4.†b. (At some time in the past reckoned) from now; in quot. 1393 = since, ago. Obs. rare.

1393 Langland Piers Plowman C. vi. 35 Whanne ich ȝong was‥meny ȝer hennes.

1610 Bp. J. Hall Common Apol. against Brownists xiii. 34 But you leape backe‥from hence to the Apostles times.

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"Hence" has more usages than just "from this/that time"; it is also used to point to the source or origin of something.

E.g. "Bill issued hence" means "Bill came out from there", where there is pointing to an antecedent in a previous clause or statement.

If you want to be clear that the meaning is "from this/that time", use "henceforth", which has drifted into being used only for time (when it's used at all).

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I think there's a confusion betwen hence and thence: hence means 'from here' (and extensions): thence is 'from there'. –  TimLymington Jul 15 '11 at 21:13

Five hundred years ago I would have made all England such an England as neither Dane, Saxon, nor Norman should have conquered. Five hundred years hence I should have been such a counsellor to Kings as the world hath never dreamed of.

Kipling, Puck of Pooks's Hill.

Not exactly proof, but evidence that Kipling, at least, used hence for the future only (and meaning 'from here', not 'from some other point').

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I would agree on the ago. the NGram Viewer seems to do as well - here is the usage by the way

NGRAM

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How does that NGram support any particular usage? Isn't it just tracking uses of "a week hence"? How would it know if that hence was for the future or not? –  MrHen Jul 16 '11 at 20:51
    
It does not. It shows that it is getting to be more and more archaic to use it, hence the danger of abusing it ;) –  mplungjan Jul 17 '11 at 5:50

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