Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Centering Around Logic

Some English speakers, copyeditors like myself among them, like logic. We like writing to be neat and tidy: precise words all lined up in their Sunday best, punctuation accentuating their meaning instead of overwhelming it.

Which is why phrases like center around drive us crazy.

"It’s not logical!" we cry, picking up arguments from dependable usage writers like Bryan Garner and Theodore Bernstein. "The center is technically a single point," writes Garner in Modern American Usage. He puts it at stage 4 of his Language-Change Index: "The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts." We can say center on, center in, or center at, Bernstein tells us in The Careful Writer, but if we want to use around, we need to change center.

There are two problems with this argument.

First, center doesn’t just mean "a single point" or "to move toward a single point." A center can also be a place, like the center of a stage, or the part of an object that is surrounded by something else, such as the filling of a chocolate truffle.

True, a center can also be "a point of origin, as of influence, ideas, or actions" (American Heritage Dictionary), but it can also be "a person, object, or group occupying a middle position," either of which center around might refer to:

They also failed to rise above factional, patronage organizations centering around particular personalities. —Asian Affairs, Winter 1995

But maybe that doesn’t convince you. Maybe you’re tempted to use center around only when the center referred to is something that can be encircled, such as a solar system. It’s a literal interpretation, but so what?

You can create more work for yourself and only use center around for circumstances that allow the literal meaning. You can ignore all the other meanings of center, as a verb and a noun, that demonstrate that a center isn’t necessarily a mathematical point. You can ignore the meaning "to have a central theme or concern; be focused" (AHD). You can ignore center’s meaning of "a person or thing that is the chief object of attention, interest, activity, or emotion" or "a person, object, or group occupying a middle position" (AHD).

The problem is that most uses of center around aren’t literal:

These questionable behaviors often center around or are often associated with violence, physical aggression, and delinquency. —Physical Educator, Winter 2004

Instead, technical advances center around measuring energy output during preOlympic rides on the Olympic course, and then using this info to tailor training. —Bicycling, May 1996

Center around is an idiom and as such it doesn’t have to follow the grammar of its individual words, just its own grammar. Something that is fair and square doesn’t have to be a square. When push comes to shove, there doesn’t have to be any physical contact. Your Sunday best doesn’t have to be the outfit you wear to church every week. And ideas that center around a specific concept don’t have to literally encircle that concept.

Idioms enrich our language, giving readers and listeners a deeper understanding in only a few words. You can choose to use center around just in a literal sense or not at all; there are certainly plenty of ways to reword it, such as center on and revolve around. But why would you limit yourself that way?

Unless your goal is to eliminate idioms from the text, as you might for younger readers or for ESL learners, by all accounts, center around is a legitimate choice.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Good day Erin, I have become an immediate Erin fan, that is such a clear explanation I will call it beautiful.
Your opening paragraph lacks one item " - - - - and organise the chronological order and actuality/truth of the writers chosen/stated/claimed Facts - -" with which Greats like Dan Brown and Wilbur Smith (and many others) are so reckless, to the point it sometimes turns their breathless action to comedy. "It is Not Logical - -" unquote.
friendly regards
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 8:35 AM
Comment by: James R.
This really helps me keep it clean. Producing copy professionally often means a pace too rushed to use precision. Your article will red flag 'center around'for me from now on. Thank you
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
I simply fail to understand why "center around" as a non-literal idiom is even necessary. Why not just say "revolves around", which makes much more sense?
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you, Frederick and James. I'm glad the article is helpful. Thorunn, you don't have to use "center around" if you don't want to. "Revolves around" works just fine.
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Howdy Erin;

I do understand your irritation with a phrase which seems to be losing some informational content in the sentence. It irritates me, too, like a dog with a tick stuck behind his ear. (Can't make it go away with any tools at his disposal.) And I also understand how you feel it is sometimes just self-punishment to care when the world is going to go on doing that vagueness-producing thing. (Tempted to say 'irregardless' of what you know to be best. But you are already irritated, so I didn't poke. Or did I?)

For me, it is 'loan', used as a verb. It reduces me to tears, and I know I cannot stop the flood of its use. Doomed!

Erin, as a writer of fiction you and I were created to be natural enemies. I still remember the copy-editor who tried to refuse me a line in which I had my protagonist huddling against his sleeping horse for warmth, because, as she said "Horses don't lie down unless they are dead." But now that it is rare to receive a good copy-editing from a publisher, I apologize for all my ire. On behalf of all writers writing now, I apologize. Everyone needs another eye on their words before they hit publication, and I can tell writers of fiction (at least) just aren't getting it any more.

Live long and prosper!
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 11:27 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Hi Roberta, (Erin), tell your previous editor she should visit horse farms or racing stables and see how often horses do lie down, even without dying first.
Once while proof reading, I had to confirm "lying horses".
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roberta, I don't see us as natural enemies. My job as a copyeditor is to help you make your manuscript the best it can be but still your manuscript. I shouldn't edit out my peeves (and I'm on the fence about whether this really peeves me) unless they're truly wrong or wrong for the text. A good copyeditor should respect the author and the author's work. The author's voice should shine through, not mine!
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 4:33 PM
Comment by: leela S. (Visalia, CA)
Bravo! Well done!

Unmaking your own bias is a noble use of the logical mind.

Leela Sannyasin

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