Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The art of nit-picking

Recently, a billboard on the N8 route near the Port Laoise bypass, advertising “Frans Crash Repairs,” was castigated by self-appointed guardians of grammatical purity, the Apostrophe Protection Society. Personally, when it comes to apostrophes I find sins of omission (leaving them out) less offensive than sins of commission (putting them in where they don’t belong). The former can be dismissed as stemming from carelessness, the latter merely highlights ignorance. And in the case of the denounced signage, one could always point to the grammatical grey area of proper names. If we can have a Kings Road, a Screen Actors Guild, or even a Finnegans Wake, can’t an argument be made for Frans Crash Repairs?

The moral of this quibbling with quibblers (if there is one) is that you have to be cautious before harrumphing about the Decline of the West. For example, a while back I read Tim Park’s latest novel, Cleaver. (Pretty good it was as well) It concerns a journalistic star (a sort of cross between the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman and art critic Robert Hughes) who flees to the Italian Alps following a damning portrait of him by his son in a (very) thinly disguised roman clef. Tipping its hat to the Austrian master, Thomas Bernhard, the novel’s opening sentence is sinuous and purposely over-long, tracking Cleaver’s escape in search of somewhere “above the noise line”:

In the autumn of 2004, shortly after his memorable interview with the President of the United States and following the publication of his elder son�s novelised autobiography, cruelly entitled Under His Shadow, celebrity journalist, broadcaster and documentary film-maker Harold Cleaver boarded a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Milan Malpensa, proceeded by Italian railways as far as Bruneck in the South Tyrol and thence by taxi, northwards, to the village of Luttach only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, from whence he hoped to find some remote mountain habitation in which to spend the next, if not necessarily the last, years of his life.

But reading the above the first time, I couldn’t help but think “from whence”–when the sense of “from” is already embedded in “whence”–and in a novel’s opening sentence? What do editors do nowadays? But “whence” is not a solecism, or at least if it is, it is one sanctioned by time and the greats. As this
extract from The American Heritage Book of English Usage helpfully explains:

Language critics have attacked the construction from whence as redundant since the 18th century, and it is true that whence itself incorporates the sense of from, as in a remote village, whence little news reached the wider world. But from whence has been used steadily by reputable writers since the 14th century, most notably in the King James Bible: �I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help� (Psalm 121). It is hard to label as incorrect a construction with such a respectable record of usage.

So, Mr Parks, you’re off the hook. Although I still have a bit of an unreasonable hangup with that archaic-sounding “thence”. . .