(27 & 28 of 30 commonly confused words)
A while ago, when reading The Times, I was struck by this sentence: “He was apolitical. He [sc. Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi PM] never mentioned Iraq where as some students were vociferous.” Aug 16, 2014.
I blogged about it at the time. Since then, that page has become one of the most visited, so I thought I’d update it.
Is it correct to write whereas as two words nowadays?
Short (and long) answer: no.
It had never occurred to me that whereas might be written as two words.
Of course, it could easily be, since it is a simple combination of where and as.
Several “words” are sometimes written as one unit and sometimes as two, for example under way and underway, any more and anymore, and so forth. Sometimes whether you write them one way or the other is simply a matter of house style or regional or personal preference; at other times, the difference can be grammatical, e.g. anymore.
But whereas is not one of those: no current dictionary that I know of accepts the two-word spelling.
A quick check in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows that whereas whereas as a single word appears over 100,000 times, as two words, it’s in the hundreds.
It is impossible to give an exact figure for it as two words, because searching for the string where as also finds sentences such as “Wolfowitz joined the bank in 2005 after working at the Pentagon, where as deputy defense secretary he was…”
What is clear, however, is that where as is highly unusual, i.e. less than one per cent of cases. The OEC data also suggests that it occurs often in news and blog sources (come back subs, all is forgiven!). Just what do they teach those journalists these days?
Was it ever two words?
Historically, it was originally two words. The earliest OED example is from The Paston Letters (1426-7), in the meaning, now largely confined to legal writing, “taking into consideration the fact that”:
Where as þe seyd William Paston, by assignement and commaundement of þe seyd Duk of Norffolk…was þe styward of þe seyd Duc of Norffolk.
(As you will no doubt have worked out, the þ symbol stands for the ‘th’ sound. It was used in Old English, is still used in Icelandic, and is called a thorn since it begins that word.)
In its principal modern meaning (“in contrast”), it first appears in Coverdale’s Bible (1535), also as two words:
There are layed vp for vs dwellynges of health & fredome, where as we haue lyued euell.
(From Book 2 of Esdras, not included in the AV.)
The first OED citation for it as one word is in Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1 (written before 1616).
I deriued am From Lionel Duke of Clarence…; whereas hee, From Iohn of Gaunt doth bring his Pedigree.
So, while there are historical precedents for the two-word spelling, whereas is one of those words that current spelling convention decrees should not be sundered.
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We’ve seen whereas above used to contrast clauses …
And — as in the Paston Letter quotation earlier — it is often used, especially in US laws, to introduce a clause, or usually several clauses, setting out the reasons for something.
Does it have other meanings?
1. Historically, it was used to mean simply “where”, but that use died out long ago, except as a poetic archaism, as illustrated in the second quotation below from the Arts & Crafts designer and writer William Morris:
That…oure heartes maye surely there bee fixed, where as true ioyes are to be founde.
Bk. Common Prayer (STC 16267) Celebr. Holye Communion f. lxiiiiv, 1549.
And quickly too he gat | Unto the place whereas the Lady sat.
W. Morris, Earthly Paradise ii. 655, 1868.
2. Whereas is also a noun.
It can mean “A statement introduced by ‘whereas’; the preamble of a formal document.”
While the contrary remains unproved, such a Whereas must be a most inadequate ground for the present Bill.
S. T. Coleridge, Plot Discovered 23, 1795.
The rule seems to be that if a candidate can recite half a dozen policy positions by rote and name some foreign nations and leaders, one shouldn’t point out that he sure seems a few whereases shy of an executive order.
As a further historical footnote, it is interesting that the legalistic, ritual use of whereas as a preamble to legal documents led to its being used as a noun, defined as follows in the Urban Dictionary of its day, Grose’s 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
To follow a whereas; to become a bankrupt…: the notice given in the Gazette that a commission of bankruptcy is issued out against any trader, always beginning with the word whereas.