Do you have an issue around ‘issues around’?

Posted by on July 16, 2012

Prepositions may seem small and insignificant, but developments in their meanings can be interesting, especially when a new use is typical of a particular kind of discourse. In recent posts I talked about an evolving sense of ahead of, found mostly in news and sports reporting, and a new(ish) sense of across, occurring mainly in informal spoken English.

Today I’d like to focus on the growing use of the preposition around to mean ‘about’ or ‘concerning’, as in “tackling issues around gun crime”. Sequences like this are often heard on the radio or television, uttered by people whose job it is to talk intelligently about the ills of society, their probable causes and their suggested remedies.

In Macmillan Dictionary this is sense 7 of around. The pattern ‘issue about/around’ is also given at the headword issue, which is by far the most frequent noun used with around. It is usually plural, as these examples (from ukWaC via Skylight) illustrate:

This conference will address issues around mixed race in Britain today, from identity to policy.

Participation and Health Care explores issues around current debates on community participation in health care provision.

Geography is a focus within the curriculum for understanding and resolving issues around the environment and sustainable development.

There are over 3,000 instances of issues around in the ukWaC corpus. The majority are from the spoken and written media, and from a range of ‘official’ texts, particularly those dealing with social and political issues – the environment, health, education, employment, taxation, racial equality, sexual identity, disability, ageing, and so on.

The examples above show that issues around is often part of a ‘problem-solving’ discourse. You are aware of the issues around something. So you highlight, raise, or focus on them; you discuss, deal with, explore, consider, look at, examine, investigate and understand them. Finally you address, confront, tackle and ideally resolve them. Some remain unresolved.

Many, if not most, instances of issues around involve noun groups with multiple modifiers, or co-ordinated lists of nouns, for example:

[He] challenges us to confront complex issues around sex, violence, consumerism, the mass media and the family.

Why has issues around proliferated like this? There is some evidence for it in the British National Corpus (compiled in the mid-nineties), but now we hear and read it everywhere.

The usefulness of the pattern seems to lie in the echoes of around‘s ‘original’ spatial meaning – its 360 degree, three-dimensional completeness. It conveys a sweeping inclusiveness, the assurance that everything possible is being done about every aspect of a problem. At the same time, however, it gives the impression of an abstract, non-committal vagueness, a focus on hopes and intentions:

This paper aims to help [our] staff to be better informed about issues around emergent disability discrimination legislation as it relates to personality disorder.

Of course, the noun issue itself is becoming much more frequent; prescriptivists often complain that problems are being recast as issues and challenges. The NOUN + around pattern, however, is by no means limited to issues. A wide range of nouns, mainly about talking and thinking, are used in the same way:

…the conference has proved to be an excellent forum for discussion and debate around many relevant issues concerning businesses today.

Our staff are increasingly influencing national and international debate around key issues in education, public policy, business, information management, and the arts.

…whilst these issues remain unresolved, government initiatives around employment are doomed to fail.

I must admit that all the examples above, though representative of this pattern, are positively yawn-inducing. Perhaps this impression is due to the level of abstraction involved, and the denseness of the vocabulary. This is a perfect example of a possible cure for insomnia:

…the opportunities and challenges around designing and implementing infrastructures for social networks, active learning, outcomes management, and technology extension.

Like many grammar patterns, this one is ‘productive’. The nouns issue(s), discussion(s) and debate(s) are the most frequently used nouns before around, but any noun to do with talking or ideas would fit as well. This one will make you smile or groan, depending on your tolerance of puns; it prefaces a book review about walking as a leisure activity:

Marion Shoard on an amusing and informative ramble around walking (the Guardian, 22 June)

This plays on two senses of the noun ramble: the reviewer goes on to say that the book is rather rambling in parts. But crucially, this interpretation depends on the reader’s recognition of the pattern NOUN + around.

So this is further proof – if needed – that ‘grammar’ words like prepositions are not simply the cement that holds the ‘real’ words together, but are absolutely central to meaning.

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Comments (12)
  • Another excellent post, Gill. I confess I’m not a fan of the construction, though I appreciate its usefulness on occasion. Maybe I come across it too often, even in academic prose, where it tends to “[give] the impression of an abstract, non-committal vagueness”, as you put it.
    Sometimes surrounding replaces around, and there might be a modal thrown in for further hedging, e.g. “There would be issues surrounding that”, where my instinctive preference would be for something like “There are problems with that”.

    Posted by Stan on 16th July, 2012
  • Stan, I agree – I’m not a fan of it, either. There are so many debates and discussions around the issues, and issues around the topic, the theme, the role of… It obfuscates rather than clarifies, especially when it’s part of some other long long noun group or list of nouns. But that’s just it, I suppose: it’s the nature of officialdom and bureacracy to ‘address the issues around’ something rather than face the problems head-on. I did like the creative exploitation of the pattern though, in ‘a ramble around walking’.

    I’d say that ‘ahead of [event]’ has carved out a little niche of meaning, and is useful. The ‘debates/issues around’ pattern is also useful, but often for the wrong reasons.

    Posted by gill francis on 16th July, 2012
  • Another issue surrounding it — I mean, another problem with it is that because it’s contagious and habit-forming (at least it seems so to me), people take to using it even when they’re trying to be clear and straightforward. In such cases the unnecessary abstraction does them no favours.

    Posted by Stan on 16th July, 2012
  • Gill: great post! Gill and Stan: I always took this use of around to be a (possibly unfortunate) outgrowth of participial phrases beginning with ‘surrounding’, e.g.

    Oh, the mystery surrounding all that God in mystery planned
    Keeps us ever watching, waiting, for some day we’ll understand

    It would be interesting, though difficult, to do a historical trace on the two constructions. Some nouns do in fact lend themselves to a figurative “surround” sense and mystery is one of them; issues, less so.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 16th July, 2012
  • “The nouns issue(s), discussion(s) and debate(s) are the most frequently used nouns before around, but any noun to do with talking or ideas would fit as well.”

    The phrase “talking around” leaps to mind. To talk around something is to avoid talking about it, to skirt the issue. But, despite the non-commital vagueness you note, it seems that usages like “discussions around” aren’t meant to carry that sort of meaning. An unintended irony on the part of the issue-addressing community…

    And I’m not a fan of it either, but it’s par for the course in this sort of painfully dull English.

    Posted by Tom Freeman on 16th July, 2012
  • […] Macmillan Dictionary blog, Gill Francis asked if we had an issue around issues around; Simon Williams and Jules Winchester taught us how to say sorry like we mean it; and Stan Carey […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik on 27th July, 2012
  • For me the use of ‘around’ has consumed contemporary dialogue, beginning with mostly psychological and corporate speak. It’s taken for granted by its majority audience without question.
    It also drives me up the wall.
    I get the same nails-on-chalkboard sensation from ‘behaviours’.

    Posted by KFurey on 19th September, 2012
  • You’re not alone, KFurey, as other comments show. Despite an ideological commitment to the descriptivist approach, and a generally positive view of language change, I still find some things (like ‘around’) quite irritating. The way Michael Hoey’s ‘lexical priming’ theory would explain this is that our reaction to a word or usage is conditioned (or primed) by the circumstances in which we’ve heard it used. I have an enduring hatred of ‘stakeholder’ because the first time I heard it was at an awful corporate training weekend (which I wasn’t enjoying): the trainer (who didn’t strike me as all that bright) used it repeatedly. ‘Around’ and ‘behaviours’ come from the same sort of stable. But in a few years’ time, these things will either have gone out of fashion, or (more likely) will have blended in and lost their power to annoy.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 21st September, 2012
  • Michael & KFurey: Yes, and the primings are constantly being reinforced. I saw your comment just after I’d read an email forwarded by Andy Dickinson, citing a letter from our City Council. The letter was in response to complaints by residents about the anti-social behaviour (ASB) of a homeless man, a ‘rough sleeper’ in the area. Some extracts from the letter:

    “I did a bit of work yesterday around the two issues you have identified to me around the [names area]…. … We woke him [the homeless man] up and said we’d been having complaints and that he really needed to engage with finding somewhere more suitable to stay. … … I also offered help around benefits as I am very concerned around reports that he is surviving by eating out of bins.”

    This writer has learnt the lingo well: he also uses ‘engage with’- another bit of bureaucrat-speak.
    This is ‘issues around’ in its natural habitat – in the wild, as Liz commented.

    Posted by gill francis on 21st September, 2012
  • it seems to me that the use of ‘around’ is now so common that people must think that it means exactly the same thing as ‘about’ and that – of the two – ‘around’ somehow sounds superior to them.

    the thing that annoys me most about the use of ‘around’ is the suggestion that it seems to carry of deliberately wanting to avoid some central issue or other – and now to deal only with minor related matters while leaving the main subject for some other time.

    Posted by erik clausen on 15th April, 2014
  • Erik: I don’t think we can say that ‘around’ in this context means ‘exactly the same thing as ‘about’’. Language is formed by its speakers, and if you choose to use ‘issues around’ rather than ‘issues about’, this choice is informed by a knowledge of its typical collocates and contexts – see Michael’s comment about ‘priming’ above. In another comment above, I suggested that it may be the nature of officialdom and bureacracy to ‘address the issues around’ something rather than face the problems head-on. So it’s not just that ‘around’ carries the suggestion of deliberate avoidance of the issue; but also that successive USERS of ‘around’ have decided to convey this suggestion; this is its accumulated meaning. Nothing ever means exactly the same thing as anything else. Like you, I find the pattern a bit annoying, and don’t use it, maybe because I have nothing to hide.

    Posted by gill francis on 15th April, 2014
  • A further objection to ‘issues around’ is that it appears to justify ‘missing the point’ (of one’s ‘conversation’ around the ‘platform’ of the ‘journey’).

    Posted by Richard Read on 21st October, 2015
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