‘O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?’
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii
This famous question must be the most misinterpreted line in all of the Bard’s many works. Students across the generations have taken it for an instance of Shakespearean irony, with Juliet asking where her sweetheart is when in fact the boy is standing right below her window, and yet ‘wherefore’ doesn’t mean ‘where’ but ‘why’: ‘Why are you Romeo?’, i.e. from the Montague family, Juliet’s family’s sworn enemies.
Fortunately, we don’t encounter many ‘wherefore’s in present-day proofreading, but other similar adverbs do cause difficulties.
Take a look at the following highlighted instances, and see whether you can suggest a better word or words:
- On 17th November 1903 the Wright brothers made their first flight, therefore changing the course of history.
- The ‘squeaky pop’ test is a test for the presence of hydrogen where a lighted splint is dipped into a test tube.
- Carbon capture is a system where carbon dioxide is trapped as it is emitted from factories and other major sources.
- The last week of November is the period where most online sales are made.
1. On 17th November 1903 the Wright brothers made their first flight, thereby changing the course of history.
Explanation: ‘therefore’ means ‘for this reason’; however, changing the course of history was presumably not the brothers’ reason for inventing the aeroplane but rather a result, and ‘thereby’ means ‘as a result of this’.
2. The ‘squeaky pop’ test is a test for the presence of hydrogen in which a lighted splint is dipped into a test tube.
Explanation: a test is not a place, so ‘where’ is not the most appropriate word. If we break the sentence into two, we get:
The ‘squeaky pop’ test is a test for the presence of hydrogen. In this test, a lighted splint is dipped into a test tube.
so ‘in which’ is the best relative adverb, but ‘whereby’ is another possibility (see below).
3. Carbon capture is a system whereby carbon dioxide is trapped as it is emitted from factories and other major sources.
Explanation: again, a system is not a place; ‘whereby’ (by means of which) is the best choice to follow words such as ‘system’, ‘process’, ‘technique’ and ‘plan’.
4. The last week of November is the period when most online sales are made.
Explanation: at the risk of repeating myself, a period is not a place! ‘When’ is the correct word for referring to time.
One final proofreading thought to close with: why (or wherefore) do we need the expression ‘whys and wherefores’, since the two words mean the same thing?
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