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14 Comments

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “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.

  • 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’.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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’).

  • Oh ugh, ugh, ugh, yes! When I saw your headline I said, “Yes!” rather more loudly than more co-workers would have liked. I first heard the godawful “issues around” in 1988 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, just the sort of place where such a locution might have been coined and definitely one where it was incubated. Berkeley has always been at the forefront of pioneering new age gobbledygook. During the same period I heard someone speaking of the pain felt by survivors of child abuse and she was compelled to reassure the audience that, “Of course no one can ever actually heal the pain from such abuse, but one can heal *around* the pain.” If I had been a child abuse survivor I might have vomited on her.

  • Ps. to Michael Rundell – I loathed “stakeholder” the first time I heard it, and it wasn’t in a particularly unpleasant situation.