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I like reading the Economist. I had a subscription to it when I was back in college and someone had moved away from my dorm without sending them a forwarding address. (I also had a subscription to Newsweek, Time, and Us Weekly that way.) I think they have insightful analysis of economic things that I otherwise don’t know very much about.

But I also think they have a completely insane style guide. For instance, did you ever think about the fact that under the circumstances is strange? I sure didn’t.  But the Economist has, and even demands that their editors remove it.  After all,

Circumstances stand around a thing, so it is in, not under, them.”

Etymologically, they are right. Circumstance comes from Old French circum-, circonstance, which comes from Latin circumstantia, which meant “standing around, surrounding condition” (all this is from the OED, not me). But then, circumstance wasn’t originally pluralizable, since its original English meaning was “that which surrounds”. Pluralizing the original English circumstance would be akin to saying “I saw the outsides of my house”.

Look, etymological reasoning is never a solid reason for a prescription. Bradshaw of the future had a wonderful post that I always like to refer to that discusses the etymological fallacy, and a while ago I listed a set of words whose meanings have changed, spitting in the face of etymology. The fact that a word meant something in Latin, or Old French, or even Old English does not mean that it means the same thing now. And sure enough, circumstance doesn’t mean “that which surrounds” anymore. In fact, here are the first seven definitions of circumstance from the OED that are not considered obsolete:

  1. The logical surroundings or ‘adjuncts’ of an action; the time, place, manner, cause, occasion, etc., amid which it takes place
  2. An adverbial adjunct.
  3. ‘The adjuncts of a fact which make it more or less criminal; or make an accusation more or less probable.’
  4. The ‘condition or state of affairs’ surrounding and affecting an agent.
  5. The external conditions prevailing at the time.
  6. Condition or state as to material welfare.
  7. Circumstantiality of detail.

The definitions go on, but they move further and further away from the original definition of “that which surrounds”. Notice that only two of the listed definitions even mention surrounding, and they apply only metaphorically. So the original meaning is pretty well lost here.

Now note further that while it might not make a whole lot of sense to say under with any of these definitions, it doesn’t make any more sense to say in either. They’re all metaphorical meanings, with abstract surroundment, so prepositions of position are all “logically” weird. (Such metaphorical usages are why the whole “logic of language” argument tends to break down, as Emily discussed in her guest post.)

Furthermore, under the circumstances has been attested for many, many years; the OED first attests it in 1665. That said, the OED has, since at least 1893, claimed a usage distinction between in and under the circumstances: “Mere situation is expressed by ‘in the circumstances’, action affected is performed ‘under the circumstances’.” But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (among others) dismisses this distinction as cryptic and unrelated to actual usage. Both in and under the circumstances are commonly used, and there is no reason to avoid either one aside from personal prepositional preference.

Or, to put it in a format that the Economist will recognize:

SIR – Your prohibition against under the circumstances is based on an etymological fallacy. I assume for consistency’s sake that you also write stamina are, since stamina is plural in Latin. Or, more relevantly to your publication, I assume you use laissez-faire economics only when describing someone else’s economy to them because it comes from the second person plural conjugation of French laisser.”

Summary: Under the circumstances is fine. So is in the circumstances.  Use them as you see fit.

*: A perhaps interesting footnote: here I am defending under the circumstances, and yet it appears I haven’t ever used the phrase on this blog.  I have used in with circumstances three times, though as in some/appropriate/certain circumstances as opposed to in the circumstances.  Using it with the still sounds funky to me.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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