Based On vs. Based Around

By Maeve Maddox

In a previous post, I wrote about the strange but trendy expression “to be based out of,” a phrase inexplicably used to mean “based in,” or “lives in.”

Now I’ve noticed another expression that uses base in a nonstandard way: “to be based around.”

The first time I noticed this odd usage was in a caption under a photo taken at a school event:

the event was based around The Sisters Grimm [a play].

I couldn’t understand why it didn’t say, “based on.”

A Google search indicates that the expression “to base something around something” is widespread. Here are a few examples in which the intended meanings seem to vary among derived from, modeled on, set in, having to do with, and plain old based on. Some are headlines.

Writing fanfiction based around a story you hate

How to make a story based around a character

The story is based around Maine.

Classic comedy based around shop in Doncaster

Worksheets and tasks based around the Shakespeare play.

This is a common problem with lesson plans based around websites

I want to write a book based around Monopoly

What are some books about based around being alone?

Dutch Artist Starting Religion Based Around Facebook Likes

Kids cartoon book based around a vegetable garden.

Used as a noun, “a base” is a foundation. Building on this meaning, the verb “to base” can have the following meanings:

  • to make or form a foundation for something
  • to serve as a base for something
  • to establish or maintain a base for something
  • to use as a base or basis for something

Something can be based on something, but to say that something is based around something makes no sense.

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17 Responses to “Based On vs. Based Around”

  • Julian Barker

    With regard to “The story is based around Maine.”, could this be valid shorthand for “based in the area around Maine”? Perhaps that doesn’t work for an entire state, but “based around Augusta” or “based around Crosby Street, Augusta” would be ok, I feel.

  • Nicholas Rose

    This construction comes from mistranslation of foreign-language constructions, such as “décliné autour de”, “tourné autour de” or “structuré autour de” in French. So it is frequently used by non-native writers of English and, sadly, by EMT translators who fail to make the 100% conversion into good English. Hence the large number of Google hits.

  • Alice Kemp

    I couldn’t agree more. “Based around” sounds awkward and unnecessarily cumbersome. It’s probably just another example of someone who doesn’t know any better – as in Nicholas Rose’s explanation – using that expression, and then being copied by some other dingbat who thinks to him/herself, “Oh, s/he must know what s/he’s saying, so I’ll do the same.” Too much of that sort of behavior is flying about the ‘net these days.

  • ApK

    I agree. “Based around” seems like a pointless corruption of “based on.”

    I disagree, however, about “Based out of….” You can see my comment in the linked article.

  • Jean Kearsley

    Nicholas’s point is well taken. Prepositions are as idiosyncratic as any other part of speech, especially when compared across language divides. To say that a given English preposition “is equivalent to” or “equals” a certain term in French, German, Russian, etc., may be true only for a markedly different set of nouns and verbs which “take” that preposition in the other language. (One of the best examples of the essentially idiomatic nature of these pairings is from Russian; when traveling at elevation, one speaks of being “on” a particular mountain range, but only “in” a different one.)

    Choosing preposition/verb pairings in, say, English, which may be appropriate in one context – or that different native language – but not in the instant one, is one of the last barriers to overcome in achieving true colloquial fluency in a second tongue.

    On this topic, I have a question to pose to the editors of Daily Writing Tips . . . and all its many contributors/commentators. What term(s) would you apply to the appropriate pairing of adjectives and verbs (or nouns, for that matter) in a given language. I have faint memories of an early English grammar teacher – who was English, I believe – referring to the importance of learning proper prepositional rechtion(?); at least, that’s the way I remember the term and its pronunciation. Has anyone heard of that term, or something similar?

  • Kathi Waligora

    Is it also appropriate to write that something is “based upon” . . .?

  • Stu Allan

    If ‘based around’ makes no sense, what part of it did you not understand?

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Kathi Walingora: Yes, “based upon” is perfectly O.K. Note that the dominant part of “upon” is the second part, “on”.
    Note that you can sit “on a stool” or sit “upon a stool”.

    Also, observe that in Germanic languages there is the slight distinction between the ideas of “on” and “upon”. For an example, in Modern German, “an” usually translates as “on”. The preposition “am” is a contraction of “an” with “dem” (an article). Thus, the city “Frankfurt am Main” the Frankfurt on the Main River. “Frankfurt an die Oder” is the Frankfurt on the Oder River.
    In contrast, “auf” often translates as “upon”, but “auf” is probably the most idiomatic presposition that there is in German. I think that ALL of the meanings of auf are idiomatic. For am example, “Sprechen Sie auf Deutsch” means “Speak in German!” or “Speak German!”

    German also makes distinctions between putting things on horizontal surfaces and putting them on vertical surfaces. I am quite happy that we have disposed of all of that in English. We just use “on” all the time, and we speak in English or speak English.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I really, really agree with this: “Something can be based on something, but to say that something is based around something makes no sense.”

    However, there are a few exceptions, usually having to do with military matters or public protection agencies. I will make up some examples:
    1. The First Infantry Division is based around Paris now. (In order to defend it from the invading Prussians.)
    2. The Atlanta Fire Department is based around New York City. (It has firehouses scattered everywhere to protect it from being burned down again like the Yankees did.)
    3. The Maine National Guard is based around Maine. (It is based at many locations in Maine.)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Stu Allen: “If ‘based around’ makes no sense, what part of it did you not understand?”
    That is an impertinent question, and I don’t like it.
    You owe Maeve Maddox an apology for such rudeness.

    The correct use of English is neither a matter of opinion nor a matter for impertinent comments to people like Maeve.
    D.A.w.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oops, bad editing:
    The Atlanta Fire Department is based around Atlanta,
    just as is the Washington Fire Department based around Washington to keep it from being burned down again, and the Chicago Fire Department is based around Chicago to prevent another Great Chicago Fire.

    By the way, the Calgary Flames ice hockey team got that name because it originated in Atlanta, Georgia, but it moved to Calgary.
    Next, there was another NHL team in Atlanta, the Thrashers, but that team moved away, too, and it is now the Winnipeg Jets.
    Ice hockey is not a poplar sport in Georgia, Alabama, etc., though there are now financially-successful NHL teams in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, and two in Florida! (Miami and Tampa)
    D.A.W.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I can see a reason for using “based around”. This can be a way of saying in effect “This story is loosely based on a previous story”. In this sense,

    “West Side Story” could have been described as being based around “Romeo and Juliet”. The author of the subsequent story has employed elements from an earlier story to fashion a new story that can’t be said to be based directly on the forerunner.

    To me, the geographical usage of “based around” is stretching the envelope too far. That makes little sense to me. However, when it comes to storylines, based around can have a definite usage. I’m sure we’ll see more of it in the future, with all the borrowing, sharing, and sampling taking place among films, novels, and dramas.

  • Dale A. Wood

    What is the matter with the phrase “based around” being used geographically. These sentences make perfect sense to me:

    1. The Tenth Infantry Division was based around Paris to defend it from the invading Prussians.

    2. The Soviet Army was based around Kursk to defend the city from the Nazi Wehrmacht.

    3. The Royal Navy is based around Great Britain to defend it from foreign invasion.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    We do not need expressions about books or films being “based around” anything because we already have the expression “based roughly on”, which is only three letters longer. Also:
    “based broadly on”
    “based loosely on”
    “based widely on”

    Why not use tried-and-true English that has been with us for decades or centuries?

  • Shaggy

    Nobody’s probably gonna read this anyway, but I just couldn’t let this one pass…

    “That is an impertinent question, and I don’t like it.
    You owe Maeve Maddox an apology for such rudeness. ”

    No, it is not an impertinent question and nobody owes anybody an apology. The question is perfectly valid, and I also agree with the reasonings behind it.

    If something “makes no sense” it means that, logically, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of it. The fact that the meaning of the expression “based around” was understood immediately implies that, at least on some level, the term does make sense.

    “Why not use tried-and-true English that has been with us for decades or centuries?”

    Because language is, has always been and always will be dynamic, not static, and thus subject to change. Also, nobody’s still using that “tried-and-true English” (or other languages for that matter) from before several centuries anyway.

  • Florian Blaschke

    “If something “makes no sense” it means that, logically, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of it. The fact that the meaning of the expression “based around” was understood immediately implies that, at least on some level, the term does make sense.”

    Lesson 101: Don’t try to one-up us “grammar-nazis” on the nitpicking game.

    The meaning could be equally well understood from the context, not the idiom itself.

    “Because language is, has always been and always will be dynamic, not static, and thus subject to change. Also, nobody’s still using that “tried-and-true English” (or other languages for that matter) from before several centuries anyway.”

    That’s a lame and clichéd excuse for lack of education or laziness. It’s not a shame to be uneducated; it’s much worse to refuse to admit errors (and instead attempt to rationalise them into virtues), especially when you are educated after all.

    Moreover, the alternative expressions suggested have not exactly been out of use for several centuries; they’re still perfectly fine and completely accepted in both written and spoken English. Don’t be silly.

  • Jake Marek

    I’m not sure what the debate is here.

    The following examples:

    1. How to make a story based around a character
    2. The story is based around Maine.
    3. Worksheets and tasks based around the Shakespeare play
    4. Classic comedy based around shop in Doncaster

    are clearly different from these:

    1. This is a common problem with lesson plans based around websites
    2. I want to write a book based around Monopoly
    3. What are some books about based around being alone?
    4. Dutch Artist Starting Religion Based Around Facebook Likes
    5. Kids cartoon book based around a vegetable garden.

    The first group does NOT imply that the subject of the sentence is based on the object, whereas the second group’s “based around” is incorrect and should have been replaced with “based on.”

    Let us examine the phrase “The story is based around Maine.” This is not intended to be a story about Maine’s history, or the concept of Maine’s statehood, or Maine as an abstract idea, or the personification of Maine, which might be the case if we had said “The story is based on Maine” (which is a ridiculous idea). Obviously the action in the story is based around the setting of Maine.

    In much the same way, the “Worksheets and tasks based around the Shakespeare play” phrase does NOT mean that the materials in question are written in the style of Shakespeare, or are a new work based on Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. “West Side Story”), but rather that they are exercise materials written to study Shakespeare’s plays. (To the best of my knowledge Shakespeare never wrote any worksheets.)

    “Classic comedy based around shop in Doncaster” is intended to showcase the madcap antics of the employees and patrons of a shop in Doncaster, not showcase the shop’s architecture, for example.

    In most cases, “based around” could certainly be improved upon to make it less confusing or awkward, but it’s an idiom – – and therefore, for whatever reason, frowned upon – – but when used correctly, it serves a totally different function from “based on.”

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