The Grammarphobia Blog

Contingency planning

Q: I recently wrote a report that recommended rehiring a university colleague “contingent on available funding and staffing needs.” My department chair said this use of “contingent” was incorrect, and suggested using “if funding and staffing needs permit.” Was I wrong?

A: We think you used the word correctly but awkwardly. We like your department head’s version better.

Most people use “contingent” in one of two ways. (We won’t go into the legal and accounting senses of the word.)

(1) As an adjective used alone, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “contingent” means “liable to happen or not; of uncertain occurrence or incidence.”

This was the word’s original meaning when it entered English sometime before 1400.

Here’s an 1860 example from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All salaries are reckoned on contingent as well as on actual services.”  

(2) In the adjectival phrases “contingent on” and “contingent upon,” the OED says, the word means dependent on or upon something else—“some prior occurrence or condition.”

This usage dates from the early 1600s.

Here’s an example from Hamon L’Estrange’s The Reign of King Charles (1654): “In things contingent upon free and voluntary agents, all the Devils in hell can but blunder.”

So by itself, “contingent” means something like “possible.” But combined with “on” or “upon,” it resembles “conditional” or “subject to.”

By using the phrase “contingent on available funding and staffing needs,” you spoke of an occurrence (a hiring) as dependent on two prior conditions: available funding and staffing needs. 

Although your use of “contingent on” is correct here, it strikes us that your department head’s version (“if funding and staffing needs permit”) is more direct and a word shorter to boot.

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