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What is the difference between attenuate and extenuate in terms of their usage and connotation?

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Generally, to attenuate is to dilute[1], and to extenuate is to excuse. While one sense of extenuate is "To make thin or slender; to draw out so as to lessen the thickness," the sense "To lessen; to palliate; to lessen or weaken the force of; to diminish the conception of, as crime, guilt, faults, ills, accusations, etc." is rather more commonly used.

[1] From wikipedia: "Attenuation is the gradual loss in intensity of any kind of flux through a medium." From wiktionary: "To reduce in size, force, value, amount, or degree; ... To weaken; ... To rarefy."

(I see that instead of "rarefy" being an alternative spelling of "rarify", wiktionary says it's the other way around.)

Note, many english.stackexchange denizens regard questions like the above (which is easily answered via websites like wiktionary) as unsuitable questions.

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  • I could quibble slightly with the exact meanings, but this is right. The main point is that they are two completely different words. No real overlap in meaning at all. – T.E.D. Oct 4 '11 at 12:45

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