“Extenuating circumstances” meaning and when to use it

You often hear “extenuating circumstances,” “mitigating circumstances,” “aggravating circumstances,” or “exceptional circumstances” used in news reports and in a court of law, and wonder what they mean. We will focus on the first phrase today.

Extenuating from Latin

“Extenuating” comes from the Latin words ex and tenuis which, when combined, means “to make thin or to make weak.” The phrase first appeared in the 1830s and became popular in the 1840s. The noun form is “extenuation,” while the verb form is “extenuate,” and the adjective form is “extenuating.”

“Extenuating” is defined as making something less serious or diluting something. When used with “circumstances,” “extenuating circumstances” means, according to Collins Dictionary, “there are reasons or factors that partly excuse” a bad situation or action. So even if an action has negative effects or impact, the severity of the sanction or punishment may not be too harsh because of factors that may reduce a person’s guilt or responsibility regarding the matter. “Extenuating circumstances” excuses the action or somehow justifies it.

Case in Point

Case in point: You missed the deadline in submitting your final project for one of your classes because a family member passed away. Your professor may be lenient and give you an extension because of that extenuating circumstance. It does not say that you are not guilty but it gives a reasonable explanation for missing the deadline, which is the reason for the leniency.

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