Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)


This is the face my gran pulls every time she hears “around” used instead of “about”. I’m worried her false teeth will fall out.

What’s this about?

As the title shows, it’s the continuation of the earlier blog on this topic:

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past.
  • Some people loathe it.
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?
  • If you were editing, how would you replace it?

For those in a hurry, here are the conclusions:

  • Around does seem to be on the increase in combination with certain kinds of noun.
  • It is not only a replacement for about: it can also replace or stand in for other phrases and prepositions (e.g. on, over).
  • It is not free, in the sense that it cannot fit into any slot where about works (e.g. you could not say “I know nothing around it”).
  • As far as I can tell, it is used chiefly in the syntagma NOUN (often plural) + around + NOUN (often plural or uncount, and including verbal nouns [“gerunds”, if you must]).
  • If one wished to edit it out, it is often clear immediately how to do so.

The earlier blog concluded with this paragraph:

“Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.”

Now, please read on… [A ten-minute read — or one minute if you’re Oscar Wilde]

Some examples of the contested use

Using Google Ngrams to find nouns preceding around produces only the literal meaning, e.g. arms around (i.e. he put his arms around her).

However, the OEC (Oxford English Corpus) comes to the rescue – sort of. If you look for plural nouns followed by around, and exclude the obvious physical meanings (e.g. business leaders around the world) you get problems, ideas around and, heaven forbid, pace my correspondent, stories around. Here are some examples:

  1. “…Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity.” Senses of Cinema, 2002
  2. “…Hastings believes there has been insufficient debate about what he sees as the huge social problems around the marketing of fast food and snacks.” Sunday Business Post, 2003.
  3. Things Fall Apart involves a range of questions around the term “Third World.” The Hindu: Literary Review, 2002.
  4. “There were also a number of other problems around the workings of the gate including the width of the net clearance provided by the gate, …” England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003.
  5. “Basically, gay artists have pushed sexual politics and ideas around sexual art quite far.” Montreal Mirror, 2002.

What becomes apparent from these examples is that, actually, in my opinion, in only the third and fifth of them could you realistically replace about with around. Try it yourself, to see what you think. In the other three, an adjectival phrase is needed, or a different preposition could have been used: in the first something like “stories on/dealing with/ concerned with, etc. a same theme”; in the second and fourth “with/connected with/arising from/caused by, etc…problems”.

So, what is going on?

As the first part of the OED definition suggests (“In reference or relation to; concerning, about”), around is not solely a modish or overused replacement for about in the meaning of “concerning”, though it often is just that. Take the phrase “ideas around sexual art” from the last quotation above. There are two entities – ideas and sexual art – and the speaker wishes to state that there is some kind of relationship between them, but the nature of this relationship is unspecified.

Possible explanations

  1. If you wanted to be leadenly literalistic, you could argue that this use of around foregrounds its physical meaning to create an image of something hovering around something else without actually touching it. That interpretation would then interpret the widespread use of issues around as a kind of liberal pussyfooting around sensitive issues. (The theory of reiconization, discussed at the end, seems to have great explanatory power, and could be taken to reinforce this interpretation.)
  2. Alternatively, one could suggest that the speaker is either being deliberately vague, or accidentally wooly.
  3. Alternatively yet again, one could simply say that the choice of around as the preposition following issues and related words is merely an increasingly prominent collocation – in the way that veritable is with smorgasbord  – while noting that it is not the only possible combination.

In fact, in the February 2014 OEC, issues around was less frequent than issues about (1744:2384) and the latter appears in examples such as the following where around could just as easily have been used:

“With or without these qualifications, the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography.” Art Bulletin, December 2003.

“Debates between the validity of medical and Neoplatonic interpretations of love thus clarify the extent to which what is seen as natural in love is a cultural construction involving wider philosophical issues about the body and gender.” Early Modern Literary Studies, May 2002.

Such collocational prominence for around seems to be self-perpetuating or self-reinforcing; the more people hear the collocation, the more people use it, and so on, ad infinitum. As evidence of this, the balance has changed dramatically in the space of three years: in the even larger May 2017 Monitor Corpus, issues around (excluding “around the world”) garners 7,496, issues about 4,606.

The process could be that the collocation is constantly expanding from issues as the head noun to other sets of words related semantically to core notions such as DISCUSSING, WORRYING, and REGULATING — and others still to be defined.

A search for PLURAL NOUNS + around + NOUN (of any kind) in the OEC threw up almost 115,000 examples. Most of them were in the physical sense; a small, random sample provided the collocations for our sense shown near the end of this blog.

Where did this use come from?

Because around in its “literal” physical meaning is more frequently used in AmE than BrE, it would be tempting to assume that this “new” use is ultimately American. I do not have enough information to say one way or the other; however, the earliest OED citation is from the British magazine Punch, from 1897. The next one noted by the OED is American, but then the 1970 one is, as far as I can tell, British. It is interesting that all include nouns relating to DISCUSSING rather than the word issues.

“Essence of Parliament… Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
1897,  Punch 29 May 263/3

“The rather outstanding feature throughout the programs was the discussion around the larger problems of rural service.”
1938, Wisconsin Libr. Bull. July 133/1

“The..publication…has stimulated discussion around pre-capitalist economic formations of the non-European type.” 1970, M. A. Cook Stud. in Econ. Hist. Middle East (1978) 278 (note)

How frequent is it?

If someone has a linguistic bugbear such as the one I am blogging about, they are psychologically primed to notice it (and wince, scream, throw a hairy fit, etc.) whenever it happens. It then becomes a prominent feature of their perception of language, irrespective of how often it actually occurs in the stream of language they are exposed to.

Linguists call this the “frequency illusion”, meaning that once one notices a particular phenomenon one notices it over and over and over again and therefore believes it to be more frequent than it actually is (“frequency” here being objective, i.e. how often per million words of “text” [which covers spoken and written] does it occur?).

As mentioned earlier, Google Ngrams shows a fairly vertiginous rise in “issues around” in AmE and BrE. The use in British English takes off later than it does in AmE, which might provide some support for AmE spreading the use.

Other off-the-top-of-the-head collocations show an increase, like issues around, from the 1960s onwards:

discussion/rules/worries/anxiety/concerns/ around”.

On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve been noting its use in speech recently, particularly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme I’ve put in brackets how I think it could be replaced if one (i.e. an editor) wanted to. The more I’ve looked into this, the more it strikes me that people use it in speech because there isn’t time to retrieve the more traditional/conventional/expected collocation — and because it is shorter — and because of reiconization.

challenges around – 22 June 2017 – British Chancellor of the Exchequer (posed by)
choices around – 23 June 2017 – a chief constable (recast the whole sentence?)
safety regimes around cladding – 26 June 2017 – I can’t remember who, sorry! (regulating, for)

And this was part of a statement by a CEO about a controversial issue:

“Instead, they were intended to outline a view that it is key for businesses in Scotland to have stability and clarity around ongoing important political issues.” (about, with regard to, when it comes to)

The most “arounded” conversation I have heard, however, comes from the leader of the Northern Ireland DUP party, Arlene Foster, from 26 May 2017, a part transcript of which is below.

Q: …
A: Well, I think this is an election about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – it’s also around getting the best deal for Northern Ireland in EU exit negotiations and making sure that we have a strong team to do that, and of course, it’s about the restoration of devolution as well.

Q: …
A: Oh, I think it can, and I think it can send a very clear message in relation to the Union. The Stormont elections were perilously close around a different set of circumstances…

In the first part, around looks like a way of not repeating about for the third time. In the second, however, it is distinctly unusual, given that there is a well-established prepositional collocation of under/in…circumstances. Moreover, it does not match the sytactic pattern mentioned earlier.

Other examples…

“I think after Will’s behaviour around women joining the team he should have been asked to leave already.” (over) (Twitter)

From OEC sample

“Though Zuckerberg has talked much about his opinions around borrowing ideas…” (about)

“…incomplete research into existing legal issues around encryption…” (affectingrelating to)

“The report recommended a raft of improvements around communication, stakeholder engagement, coaching, roles and responsibilities and leadership.” (to)

“The Government also agreed to lifting the restrictions around day-release for eligible prisoners…” (on)

“…directors emerged from a marathon board meeting on Thursday having resolved to implement new protocols around contracts after bungling negotiations…” (for, regulating, governing, etc.)

The wince factor

This is a purely and utterly subjective phenomenon – which is not to belittle its emotional intensity, but to state an obvious truth (or truism). [For example, I detest the pronunciation of “perfect” as /ˈpəːfɛkt/ rather than  /ˈpəːfɪkt/ because a) to my mind it reflects “spelling pronunciation”, and b) it is not the pronunciation I grew up  with. However, others might find this particular bugbear hard to understand or share.]

Words constantly change meaning and use. What is unusual, I believe, about around is that it is a preposition. Changes in the use of preposition are perhaps more noticeable because they are grammatical words, and grammatical words do not change that often or that quickly.

The eminent linguist Dwight Bolinger long ago devised the concept of “reiconization” to explain the increasing use of about to replace “of” in phrases such as “We’re more aware about it” rather than “aware of”.

I believe a similar process has happened/is happening with around: it sounds more graphic and literal than the now “empty” about.

Finally, we have no problem with the extension from the literal, spatial meaning of about to the less literal one of “concerning”. One could ask, why should around be any different?

Text of the abstract of the Bolinger article about reiconization (World Englishes, November, 1988).

“Reiconization refers to the process of reanalysis in which a meaningless or semantically opaque item is replaced by a new item with a transparent meaning. When the replaced (deiconized) item combines with other items to form a larger expression, the effect of reiconization is to maintain or restore the original meaning of the larger expression. This process is readily observable in the case of prepositions. For instance, the preposition of lacks a central meaning, and consequently, it is often replaced by the more iconic about or for, as in talk about rather than talk of. Similar examples can be found for other prepositions. Reiconization is not restricted to the replacement of prepositions, but operates at higher levels as well. The respecification of each in the reciprocal, each other, and the reanalysis evidenced by folk etymologies furnish examples of the operation of reiconization at different levels.”

One has to pay to read the article online. I shan’t attempt to summarize it, but will merely say that Bolinger gives several examples showing NOUN/ADJ/VERB + of collocations in which of is replaced by about: 

proud                                        |
I didn’t know what to make | about
disdainful                                 |
wary                                          |

He then goes on to say that while those phrases are reiconized by means of about, about itself is deiconized in the pair about vs around (in US English, at any rate.) Thus, to mess about is replaced by mess around, similarly,
stroll |
stand | about –> around 

That deiconization of about seems to go a long way towards explaining the rise and rise of around discussed in this blog.


Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

4 thoughts on “We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)

  1. As an editor of corporate and marketing materials, I come across this use of “around” often. I’m afraid I believe that in most cases it’s used because the author is too rushed or lazy to think for a moment and produce the preposition that would be more appropriate (about, with, of…).

    My attitude may be a reflection of my dislike of the usage. Nevertheless…


  2. Hi, Laura

    I don’t disagree.

    As I say at the end of the blog, it’s often a case of speed dictating the use of this preposition. What I was trying to do was explain why this is happening with about rather than with any other preposition: it could be part of a long historical process.


  3. Around the issue of the usage’s origin, it could be related to fuller forms such as “centered around,” which I’ve found in US newspapers back to the fourth quarter of the 19th century. If so, “issues around gender” is not simply “liberal pussyfooting.” Around here suggests that the discussion or debate was primarily on gender, but that it also extended to other related subjects.


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