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.Email this Post