Posted by: Jack Henry | April 1, 2016

Editor’s Corner: How come?

Dear Editrix,

How about posting something on the questions “How come?” versus “Why?”


Mindful in Missouri

Dear Mindful,

I find your question very interesting because I know many people say, “How come?” when they want to know why something is the way it is. It just isn’t something I recall saying or hearing recently. I think I generally associate it with kids asking their parents for an explanation of why they aren’t allowed to do something. (“Well, Autumn, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to take the dog bungee jumping,” said Mr. Oates. Autumn returned with a high-pitched, squealing, “How come, Dad?”)

According to other resources I’ve found, “How come?” is considered by some as grammatically incorrect and by others as “too casual.” Grammar Girl gives us a little more information on the history of the term, which I’m more than happy to share.

The oldest reference for "how come" in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is an entry in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1848. Although the OED calls "how come" an American coinage, the entry in Bartlett’s indicates it originated in England: "Doubtless an English phrase, brought over by the original settlers." "How come" is believed to be short for "how did it come about that," "how is it that," or "how comes it."

A web search turned up examples of these older phrases:

§ How comes it then that this her cold so great is not dissolved through my so hot desire . . . (British poet Edmund Spenser in "Sonnet 30," 1611)

§ How comes it that the Church has attained such greatness in temporal power . . . (Machiavelli, in The Prince, 1513)

I hope this helps!


Thank to Tracy K. for this photo.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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