Dr. Language Guy Returneth

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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.

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16 responses to “Dr. Language Guy Returneth

  1. Elizabeth Krall

    Curmudgeon, I feel your pain. I worked as a “sub editor” (the North American term is “copy editor”) for many years, waging war on whilst and amongst. I could add to your list of pet hates with my own pet hates — but where might that lead?

  2. Recently, my son sent me a text in which he used the word ‘whilst.’ Apparently, sometime during his school day, he became British.

  3. Absolutely excellent. Once again, wish I had thought of it first. HF

  4. I’ve noticed that whilst and amongst seem to be used more commonly by our friends in the UK. The destiny thing is an annoying one, as I’ve thought about that too—if it’s destiny, then by definition you can’t control it. But I never thought about how wrong “fall between the cracks” is. And now that you’ve pointed it out, I will never fail to go ballistic when I hear it. Thanks a lot.

  5. I was going to make a crack, but now I’m too intimidated…

  6. If it fell btwn the cracks – it could accidently plug up your bum whilst you’re trying to hang out amongst your friends – who are trying to control their own destinies by coming from whence or thence – which is that place btwn the cracks.

  7. Whilst reading your post, I determined that my pea size brain fell into the cracks. Actually, truth be told, I think my brain is cracked.
    By the way, I will not be using the word, “Thence” anytime soon. That should please you.

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