Difference between Why and Wherefore

Key difference: ‘Why’ is used to inquire about something, or to ask for an explanation about a situation. It is mainly used to seek the reason, cause, or purpose for something. Contrary to popular belief, ‘wherefore’ is not a derogative of ‘where’, even though they may have once been synonymous. However today, ‘wherefore’ is used similarly to ‘why’.

Both ‘Why’ and ‘Wherefore’ are questions that can be used for various purposes in the English language. However, they differ in the manner that they are used and what type of answers they are seeking.

‘Why’ is used to inquire about something, or to ask for an explanation about a situation. It is mainly used to seek the reason, cause, or purpose for something. It is more of an authoritative question. It demands an answer, as to ‘why did this happen?’ or ‘why did you or didn’t you do this.’ For example: Why is she at the party? (I want to know the reason.)

Dictionary.com defines ‘why’ as:

  • For what? For what reason, cause, or purpose?: Why did you behave so badly?
  • For what cause or reason: I don't know why he is leaving.
  • For which; on account of which (usually after reason to introduce a relative clause): the reason why he refused to go.
  • The reason for which: That is why he returned.
  • A question concerning the cause or reason for which something is done, achieved, etc.: a child's unending hows and whys.
  • The cause or reason: the whys and wherefores of a troublesome situation.
  • (Used as an expression of surprise, hesitation, etc., or sometimes a mere expletive): Why, it's all gone!

As ‘why’ is a standard form of a question, it is used in a standard question form, which means that the subject and verb are inverted. In a question format, the subject follows the verb, such as ‘Why did you say that?’ as opposed to a regular sentence format which is subject verb object, e.g. ‘You did say that.’

Examples:

  • Why did you behave so badly?
  • Why did you want to leave the party?
  • Why did you say that?
  • Why didn't you do your homework?
  • Why was she late?
  • Why did she go?
  • Why does she have to go?
  • Why didn't you see the movie with them?
  • Why did you go to Peru?

Contrary to popular belief, ‘wherefore’ is not a derogative of ‘where’, even though they may have once been synonymous. ‘Wherefore’ comes from Middle English ‘wherfor’, ‘wherfore’, ‘hwarfore’ which originally meant where or what for. However today, ‘wherefore’ is used similarly to ‘why’. Dictionary.com defines ‘wherefore’ as:

  • Archaic. For what? Why?
  • For that cause or reason: Wherefore let us be grateful.
  • The cause or reason: to study the whys and wherefores of a situation.
  • Synonyms: accordingly, ergo, therefore, thereupon, why

The most popular example of ‘wherefore’ is the statement uttered by Juliet in Shakespeare's famous play ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The dialogue states that, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Many people believe that she is looking for Romeo, asking ‘Where are you, Romeo?’ However, what she is saying is that, ‘Why are you Romeo?’ As Romeo is a Montague. This statement is in regard that she, a Capulet cannot be with Romeo, a Montague.

Other Examples:

  • Wherefore let us be grateful. (That is why let us be grateful)
  • She took an ill turn, but wherefore I cannot say. (She took an ill turn, but for what reason I cannot say.)
  • Truly he cared for me, wherefore I title him with all respect. (Truly he cared for me, as a result of which I title him with all respect.)

Image Courtesy: fitnessgurunyc.com, flickr.com

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