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.Email this Post