Etymology Usage

Pomp and circumstances

Q: Is it OK to say “under certain circumstances”? Or should it be “in certain circumstances”?

A: Both “under the circumstances” and “in the circumstances” are correct (it’s irrelevant whether you use “certain” instead of “the”). 

The use of “in” seems to be more common among speakers of  British English, but both “in” and “under” are used by Americans, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

M-W says objections to “under the circumstances” were first raised in 1824, based on etymological grounds.

Since circum means “round” or “around” in Latin, the critics said, “under” is inappropriate.

M-W calls this an “etymological fallacy,” noting that back in the 1920s Henry Fowler dismissed the critics’ reasoning as “puerile.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t get into that argument, but it has an opinion about when each preposition is appropriate: “Mere situation is expressed by ‘in the circumstances,’ action affected is performed ‘under the circumstances.’ ”

Here are a few of the OED’s citations:

1665, from a sermon of Robert South: “Every Hypocrite … under the same Circumstances would have infallibly treated Him with the same Barbarity.”

1856, from James A. Froude’s History of England: “Who found himself in circumstances to which he was unequal.”

1862, from an essay by John Ruskin: “The desire to obtain the money will, under certain circumstances, stimulate industry.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, agrees with the OED. Both usages are correct, he says, though there’s a difference.

In the circumstances refers merely to existing conditions, and implies a continuing state of affairs,” Bernstein writes.

But, he says, “under the circumstances refers to conditions that impel or inhibit action, and implies a transient situation.” 

The differentiation seems reasonable, but we strongly doubt whether most people observe it today or would even notice it. 

By the way, “in” and “under” are by no means the only prepositions that can properly be used with “circumstances.” Many others could be right, depending on the circumstances.

Check out our books about the English language