The English language is rich, complex and idiosyncratic, filled with nearly a million words. Yet, most of us – me – constrain ourselves to three to four thousand at most. Although we should attempt to broaden our base of words, there are some words and phrases that we should just not use.
No, I don’t mean George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television. A number of you drop f-bombs left and right. Even I do occasionally, just not as effectively.
No, I mean those archaic forms or trite phrases that we don’t ever get right. Ever.
Whence and Thence
Whence means from what place; from where. Thence means from that place or therefrom. Since the ‘from’ is already included, there is no need to add it in a sentence but we invariably do. If noted authorities like the English legal system and author Jane Austen can’t get these words correct, what chance do we have?
“You shall be taken to the place from whence you came, and then hence to a place of lawful execution, and there you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and afterwards your body shall be buried in a common grave within the precincts of the prison wherein you were last confined before your execution, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
–The formal death sentence of the English legal system
“Away ran the girls, too eager to get in to have time for speech. They ran from the vestibule into the breakfast-room, from thence to the library …”
–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
From whence translates literally as ‘from from where’ and from thence as ‘from from that place.’ It’s nonsensical and redundant. So, unless you are giving a formal death sentence (appropriate in certain circumstances) or speaking in literary circles like Jane Austen’s World, don’t use these words. You’ll get them wrong.
Whilst and Amongst
Okay, you can use these words. Whilst means while; amongst means among. I just prefer while and among. However, amongst friends, you may use these words whilst writing.
They control their own destiny.
How many times do I have to hear this phrase from ex-jock commentators? “This team controls its own destiny.” Even commencement speakers, like Dr. Oz, tell students “to control their destiny.” Oh, yeah? Destiny is defined as ‘the seemingly inevitable or necessary succession of events.’ If it’s inevitable, how can you control it? You can’t. Maybe you can affect your future but you cannot control your destiny.
It fell between the cracks.
“This legislation fell between the cracks” says some late night political pundit. The space between the cracks is filled. Between is defined as ‘in or through the space that separate two things.’ The space that separates two cracks in the floor is the solid area of the floor. If something falls and is lost, it falls into the cracks, not between them.
Whilst you ponder on these words of wisdom before they fall between the cracks, Dr. Language Guy, in control of his own destiny, returneth from whence he came.