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Centring around a usage disagreement

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Consider this line, which appears in William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light: “One of the Sharman Group’s research initiatives centred around the possibility of isolating mutant strains of HIV.” Gibson is a skilled and careful writer, and it’s clear what he means by the words centre around, yet some readers automatically reject the phrase as an error.

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded. The problem, as Michael Quinion says, is that “geometric logic is fighting idiomatic and figurative usage”. Gabe Doyle stresses that language isn’t geometry, and sees “no reason to try to make it so”.

The idiom has an abstract use and a more physical one. Macmillan Dictionary offers the following examples: The debate centred around the issue of finance; The celebrations will all centre around the church. Here’s another, from the British National Corpus: recreation centred around the bars provided; and one from Sarah Clive’s post on South African English: variations on the name . . . seem to centre around the notion of weddings. All these lines are fine, and readily comprehensible.

People might say centre around for much the same reason they say surrounding in the context of discussion or attention (the crisis surrounding food regulation; legal questions surrounding the incident). Both centre around and surrounding indicate the centrality of something while also connoting complexity. We’re focusing on one thing while acknowledging that there are related matters of lesser importance. Hence the words main and mainly in Macmillan’s definitions.

If you don’t like the idiom, you needn’t use it. (I tend not to, but I see no good reason to try and stop others.) There are alternatives: centre (up)on, revolve around, is mainly concerned with, and so on. But centre around is in widespread and standard use, and should not be dismissed cursorily as an error.

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Stan Carey

16 Comments

  • In geometry, a line is infinitely long and has zero width. Yet we in the United States say we “waited in line” (I won’t address heathens who say “waited on line”) even though the line to which we refer is neither infinitely long nor of zero width. In short, any attempt to conflate geometry with idiomatic usage is beyond misguided.

  • I’ve discovered that the phrase “full of beans” has different meanings depending on region of the U.S.. In the Midwest, where I’m from, it means sassy & energetic, but in other parts of the country (esp. the South) it means “full of crap.”

  • Curtis: Indeed. It makes no sense to apply the same rules in language that obtain in geometry. They’re fundamentally different systems, with different kinds of logic.

    duve: That’s interesting. I’ve only ever heard the “energetic” phrase, and wasn’t aware of another meaning at all. Maybe instead of baked beans they’re faked beans.

  • I would imagine that when you are talking about something as complex as isolating strains of a virus, then there is an idea of trying to find the solution. Maybe centred around is an idiomatic way of comparing searching in an area for the answer to the way a bird will circle around it’s pray before swooping to attack.

  • Bob: Yes, I think that rings true a lot of the times it’s used. Centre around combines the circling around of circle around and the centring on of centre on — analogous to a bird and its prey, as you say.

  • Stan:
    The whole kerfuffle amounts to nonsense over a semantic shift. “Centres (ers) around” avoids circumlocutions like “the poiint of the discussion,” or “the emphasis of,” etc. Besides, I never think geometrically unless I fail to square a circle.

  • Stan:
    I propose the establishment of a world academy that would require everyone to use the same language (no variant dialects or pronunciations) and orthography, on pain of never being spoken to again after the second infraction. That would solve the problem.

  • Grrrr. The simple point, seemingly overlooked here, is that the word ‘on’ can and should always be used in place of ‘around’, with no loss of meaning (or, with respect, of the supposed complexity of whatever’s being discussed) and a great deal less annoyance to those of us with a dislike of the oxymoronic. (As for the point above about ‘surrounding’, that word is entirely clear in its meaning, so seems to me to be irrelevant to this debate.) So, let’s resolve to ‘revolve around’ issues, plots, etc, or ‘centre/center on’ them. Pip pip.

  • Stephen: Language often isn’t literal or logical, and its users don’t obey rules just to avoid annoying those who dislike apparent illogic or oxymorons. ‘Should always’ won’t get you far in usage disputes. You can resolve to ‘revolve around’ and ‘centre on’, but others are equally free not to.

  • I’m going to go with the purists and agree that it is an annoyance. However, I can live with it; I just think it’s poor usage. It does bother me when I see it, I cannot deny it, and the argument against its usage is sound, but I think the cause since the ’90s, when it seemed that ‘centre around’ became acceptable, has been lost. Having said that, you won’t catch me using it it. It’s almost as bad a mixed metaphors, which can at times at least be amusing.

  • That’s fair enough, Tim. The phrase doesn’t annoy me, but I still don’t use it, and when editing I would sometimes change it to centre on if the less disputed phrase works better or equally well. But it’s not the case that centre around became acceptable only in the 1990s — it was in uncontroversial use for decades before complaints started to appear about a century ago.

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