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Centre around

Q From Dasu Krishnamoorty: I found this sentence in Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger: “Henry appreciated the comparison although he finds that his own work often centers around a single character.” I think it should be center on. Am I correct?

A Several respected writers on language have agreed with you, very firmly in some cases. The form — which has been around since the 1860s but which has become much more common in the latter part of the twentieth century — has faced criticism from the 1920s onward, round the time it began to appear often enough to be noticed. One modern standard work summarises objections to it like this:

Something can “center on” (avoid “upon”) or “revolve around” something else but it cannot “center around”, as the center is technically a single point. The error is common.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A Garner, 2003.

However, many other writers down the years have disagreed, as do several other modern standard works. The problem is that geometric logic is fighting idiomatic and figurative usage. The other side is well put in another American work of the same year as Garner’s:

“Center around”, a standard idiom, has often been objected to as illogical. The logic on which the objections are based is irrelevant, since “center around” is an idiom and idioms have their own logic.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2003.

As a famous philosopher used to say on the BBC’s Brains Trust back in the 1940s, it all depends what you mean by centre. Outside the mathematical sciences, a centre isn’t a Euclidean point that has position but no extent, but a location with fuzzy boundaries. A town centre is a place that any speaker of English will understand, but it isn’t a point, it’s an area.

However, if we look at real-world examples of the way people employ the idiom, we find there isn’t too large a gap between the opposing views. Users usually implicitly agree that you can’t physically centre around something. When they use the idiom, it only rarely refers to real places but commonly to figurative locations:

Both the House and Senate bills center around a cap-and-trade system that limits carbon emissions.

Forbes, 7 Oct. 2009.

Weight-loss plans that center around a diet of below 1,000 calories do not, they say, lead to long-lasting weight loss.

New York Times, 22 Oct. 2009.

Centre around feels wrong to me, I have to admit, no doubt a result of my technical background. But — as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary points out — the idiom is now standard. That’s true not only of the US but other countries too, though the spelling varies:

Other concerns centre around pricing.

Daily Telegraph, 3 Oct. 2009. Round used to be more common, but there has been a noticeable shift in the UK towards around in the past decade or so.

As Bryan Garner’s and other style guides note, many other phrases are available if centre around is unacceptable. And it might be better avoided in any case if you worry about being charged with illogicality. You have centre on and centre in and also revolve around as possibilities.

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Page created 30 Jan 2010