October 26, 2005

Preposition the circumstances

In my posting on "in terms of",  I said in passing:

There is a more or less constant pressure to bulk up simple prepositions for the purposes of emphasis; just last week I caught someone saying "within the circumstances", presumably to improve on the simple "in".  Brevity is not the only virtue.

I was then moved to look at the frequency of "within the circumstances" -- more than I thought, but way less than the frequency of "in/under the circumstances" -- and to recall that I was taught in grade school that only "in the circumstances", and not "under the circumstances", was correct (because "circum-" means 'around'), which led me to look at MWDEU's informative and entertaining entry on "circumstances".

Here are the raw Google webhit figures:

within: 16,200
in: 3,310,000
under: 3,980,000

The 16,200 figure is not to be sneezed at, but it's totally dwarfed by the others, which are 200-250 times as large.  So far as I know, usage manuals do not yet complain about "within" in this context, but now that I've pointed out this minority option, maybe they soon will.  Sigh.

As for "in" vs. "under": "under" is somewhat more frequent than "in", and the OED2's cites have "under" appearing before "in", but not enormously long before, so we'd conclude that the two prepositions are just stylistic options, with maybe a bit of an edge for "under".  OED1 claims to see a meaning distinction between the two prepositions here -- 'mere situation' for "in" vs. 'action affected' for "under" -- and this claim was carried over into OED2, but few commentators now agree with it (or even understand it).  It might be that the most important difference between the two is that "in" is normally unaccented, "under" accented.  It certainly seems to be that some people tend to prefer one and some the other.  But not much is known about the details of the choice between "in" and "under".

What makes the MWDEU entry so entertaining is the history of the proscription of "under the circumstances".  First, it's an instance of a subtype of the Etymological Fallacy, which we here at Language Log Plaza comment on so frequently: the combinatory possibilities for "circumstances" are being dictated by the etymology of the word.  Second, the proscription (with its EF underpinning) appears to have been a sheer invention, possibly by Walter Savage Landor in 1824.  About a century after this, critics began to notice the issue, but for the most part allowed both prepositions.  Nevertheless, the proscription of "under" would not die -- it's another zombie rule, this time one specifically not endorsed by Fowler (or, for that matter, Garner, who fancies himself Fowler's present-day heir) -- and it continues to surface every so often in people who passionately disapprove of "under the circumstances".  I myself am a victim of this zombie rule: though I don't object to "under"-- I know too much about the facts to do that -- I use "in" almost exclusively, as far as I can tell, because that's what was ground into me in childhood.  Another sigh.

[Update, 10/27/05: Oh, it gets even better. Reader Joe Heininge writes to suggest that the "original meaning" of "under" included a sense 'among, in the midst of', which would mean that "under the circumstances" would have an etymological pedigree as good as "in the circumstances".  I don't know about the original meaning of "under" (or of any word), but OED2 supplies sense 6a -- "With reference to something which covers, clothes, envelops, or conceals; passing into the sense of 'within'" -- which would seem to fill the bill pretty nicely.  Citations with a 'within, inside (of)' sense go back at least to the 15th century.  Here's a modern quote, from the Habits of Good Society (1859): "If you do not wear silk stockings under your boots".]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 26, 2005 09:15 PM