From George Orwell's 1984, part 2 chapter 9:

For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away.

It seems like either the "when" or the "once" is unnecessary. Has a feel of Britishness to it (the book is from the UK).

Is this officially correct? If so, how does it work grammatically?

  • It's fine and dandy in some registers. As you say, largely British; as you imply, a redundancy; not often used nowadays. Normally better avoided, but not ungrammatical. Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 20:20
  • 2
    Excellent question. It seems pleonastic to me too, like "first and foremost" or "each and every." Google Books' Ngram utility shows a long decline in the frequency of this collocation through the twentieth century after its holding pretty steady through the nineteenth. Some corpora (like that selected for the link) show a bit of a resurgence in the twenty-first; others do not. Specifically American and British corpora do not seem to show much difference between them, though. Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 20:29
  • @BrianDonovan- You should post your comment as an answer. Well done! Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 20:44
  • @EdwinAshworth: "Largely British"? Largely? Evidence of that? This Ngram doesn't really back that up, FWIW.
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 6:56
  • @Drew But I'd say these do. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 17:07

2 Answers 2


I don't think it's pleonastic, though it might well be obsolescent. I think once can still be read as an adverb here: "when they had done this even once".

I'm guessing that this construction when once is what led to once being reanalysed as a conjunction.

  • Feels obvious, now that you pointed it out :) Still seems a bit pleonastic to me though (thx for the new word pleonastic: using more words than are necessary). Wouldn't "When they had done this" or "Once they had done this" express the same thing here?
    – Axel
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 3:41

When Orwell said, "When once," it meant the same thing as if he had simply said, "Once," but with added clarification. While it may seem redundant, it really isn't. In the text you provided, the "when" clarifies that Orwell didn't mean that "they" did it once, or one time, and the "once" clarifies that Orwell didn't mean while they did it, or they did it simultaneously, which "when" can mean.

The phrase "when once" isn't in any dictionary that I could find, but this meaning can be sourced because "when once" begins a verse in the King James Version of the Bible:

When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are...

-Luke 13:25

Having attended four years of seminary and spent two years as a missionary in Portugal, I know that the protestant translation of the Bible in Portuguese that exactly corresponds with the King James Version is the João Ferreira de Almeida version, which reads:

Quando o pai de família se levantar e cerrar a porta..."

The Catholic version of starts:

Quando o dono da casa se levantar e fechar a porta...

The first two words, "Quando o," translate to mean: "When the." In both primary versions of the Portuguese Bible, these same words as the King James Version are translated merely as the word "when."

As a missionary, I spent about eight months teaching Spanish speakers rather than Portuguese speakers. The Protestant version of the Bible in Spanish that exactly corresponds to the King James Version is the Reina-Valera Version starts the same verse as follows:

Después que el padre de familia se haya levantado y cerrado la puerta...

The first words in the Spanish version of Luke 13:25 translates to say: "After the..." or "Once the..."

Based on this same phrasing appearing in something as fastidiously translated across languages as the Holy Bible, it becomes clear that the English phrase "when once" doesn't nuance a meaning different than "when" or "once" used by themselves, save for the clarification that using both together creates by eliminating unintended meaning that could be gathered from using either "when" or "once" by itself.

If the phrase "when once" truly added some tertiary meaning that neither of these words by themselves mean, then you would see that reflected in the words of the Bibles of other languages. For example, the Portuguese version might read, "Quando de uma vez..." (When once...), and the Spanish version would read, "Cuando después que..." (When once...). However, that is not what they say.

So, why did George Orwell use such stilted and archaic language? You'd have to find commentary from George Orwell, which I could find none. I'd surmise that he was either trying to be abundantly clear or was trying to sound lofty by employing a rhetoric that made what he was saying sound somewhat scriptural. Regardless of what his reason was, suffice to know that "when once" doesn't denote or even connote a meaning that is distinct from simply saying "once" or "when" alone; rather, it only narrows the meaning to the one that both words share.

  • In Luke it is 'αφ ου αν.' Is that different from plain οτε ?
    – Hugh
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 0:25
  • @Hugh : I don't know. Whereas I know my Greek alphabet, so I can see you wrote "aph ou an" and "ote," but I have no idea what any of that means. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 5:47
  • Thank you for this interesting and detailed reply. Sorry for taking so long to notice it. :)
    – Axel
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 0:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.