You know nothing from darting to and fro

Ideas

A WORD IN THE HAND: FROM

You know nothing from darting to and fro

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Do sheep run to and fro or back and forth?
Do sheep run to and fro or back and forth?
Image: ROMAN NEDOSHKOVSKIY/123RF

It is sometimes assumed that the slang expression prevalent in parts of SA, “She knows from words” or “I know nothing from that” has seeped into English from Afrikaans, because “van” doubles as “of” and “from” in that language.

“Ek is van die Kaap” can be translated as either “I am from the Cape” or “I am of the Cape”. Both would pass muster with English grammarians, but when it comes to “Ek weet niks van skape nie” the correct translation is “I know nothing of (or about) sheep” and not “I know nothing from sheep”.

As an aside, van also means surname, which must create huge confusion for anyone using Google translate to decipher Afrikaans. “My first name is John and my from is Smith.”

Getting back to “know from”. This misuse seems to be on the rise, and it is not always a mistake. Often it’s done deliberately because it sounds cute. “Yussie, bru, you really know from welding hey.”

The Afrikaans-origin theory is not entirely correct but it’s not that wide of the mark. According to the Grammarphobia blog, “to know from” is simply an evolution of the many expressions in which “from” is used comparatively, such as to “know turtles from jays”, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1598, or to not know your election manifesto from your elbow, as I wrote today.

But wait, there’s more. Grammarphobia also quotes linguist Leo Rosten, who says the terms “to know nothing from” or “to know from” were made popular among Jewish immigrants in New York in the 1930s.

In his book The Joys of Yinglish, Rosten says “the ungrammatical substitution of from for about or of” in an English sentence like “What do I know from investments?” is “Bronxian Yinglish” derived from the Yiddish Vos vays ikh fun.

Wherever it comes from and whether or not it is correct, knowing from slang is far less annoying than that other and much more frequent abuse of “from”. One of the worst insults a word can suffer is to be ignored, and this is what happens to poor little from all the time, when it is rejected in favour of “to”, or even worse, “than”.

As if we don’t have enough to blame the US for, the American habit of saying “different than” has spread its ghastly tentacles all over the world. We might have lost that battle, but there is still a war to be waged against “different to” because that is just plain wrong. I have also seen “it makes a nice change to the usual thing” which is if anything even more irritating. It’s “a change from”, and nothing will make me change my mind from that.

“From” incidentally, is the father of “fro”, a word that is never used on its own — unless you put an apostrophe in front of it when referring to a glorious hairstyle popular in the 1970s. Outside of the salon, fro is only ever found harnessed to “to” in the phrase: “to and fro”.

As prepositions, “to” indicates movement in the direction of something and “fro” historically meant to move away from something. A long time ago, “toward” meant toward, as it still does today, but the opposite of toward was “froward”. Now we just say “away”. It’s a good thing “froward” fell out of popular use because it means the opposite of “forward”, and English is already complicated enough, if you ask me.  

“To and fro” means pretty much the same thing as “back and forth”. The lexicographer’s language map shows that the term “to and fro” has gradually diminished in use and has been overtaken by “back and forth”, but there is still a place for both (just as there should be a place for “from” after “different” and “change”).

If the sheep run back and forth across a field, I would imagine them running from one fence to the other and back again. If the sheep run to and fro, however, they could just be randomly dashing all over the place. I’m not sure which would be more believable, though, because I don’t know much from sheep.

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