Word of the Week: Contingency

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Contingency refers to an event that might or might not occur but that, nevertheless, must still be prepared for because there is a good chance that it could happen (sentences 1-4). In its adjective form—contingent—it can also describe an event or events that are totally dependent upon other events happening first (sentence 5).

  1. The military leadership does not believe the war will inflict much damage, but it is still preparing for all possible contingencies.
  2. Loyalty is personal relationship, not a judgment. Loyalty is uncalculating; we do not extend loyalty based on contingencies. (Adapted from Jocelyn M. Pollock. Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice (7e). Cengage Learning p.122)
  3. If the architects were going to get the job, they had to come up with several different contingency plans for the variety of natural disasters that might strike the area in which the shopping complex would be built.
  4. After the disastrous oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, it was clear that the company had not considered every contingency when deciding what equipment was necessary in the event of an explosion.
  5. The second round of software purchases was contingent upon the company's being satisfied with the first.


fire escape

Memory Peg. Link the word contingency to the visual image of a fire escape, which is the physical embodiment of a contingency plan for a fire. You might also link the sounds of the last two syllables of contingency to the word emergency. Then link both words together into a sentence that you say aloud, "A difficult situation is less likely to turn into an emergency if those involved have considered every imaginable contingency beforehand."

To remember the meaning of the word when it's used as an adjective, keep in mind that its last three letters, e n t, are the same as the last three letters of its definition, "dependent."

Photo on the left courtesy of Savraj, who has graciously made it part of the public domain.


Specialized Use in Law and Accounting. Sometimes lawyers and accountants work on the basis of a contingency fee. In other words, their getting paid is contingent upon their client getting paid. Many lawyers representing people who have suffered injuries due to accidents work on the basis of a contingency fee. If the accident victim wins his or her lawsuit, then the lawyer gets a portion of the winnings. However, if the victim doesn't win the lawsuit, the lawyer doesn't get paid. Some accountants, a very few, will also conduct an audit on the basis of a contingency fee.


Comprehension Checks

1. Which of the following sentences uses contingency correctly?

In a serious contingency, it pays to keep your wits about you. Let yourself fall into panic, and you are bound to make a bad situation much, much worse.
The company lacked a contingency for the economic downturn that no one had expected would come so quickly on the heels of the previous one.
If you are going to trek through the wilderness on your own, as Cheryl Strayed describes doing in her book Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, it is, unfortunately, not possible to be prepared for every contingency. If you are, as Strayed was, your pack will be so heavy, you will have trouble walking, a problem she memorably describes.

2. Possessing which of the following would suggest you are a person who knows the importance of having a contingency plan?
an automatic coffee-maker
a first-aid kit
a desk with sturdy drawers
a basketball

3. What did the famous chemist John Charles Polanyi, whose family fled Germany during World War II, mean when he said that "our and other’s rights are contingent on our willingness to assert and defend them"? How would you put that statement into your own words?

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Last update of this page: April 1, 2014