Center Around and Centre Round

By Maeve Maddox

The phrases “center around” (US) and “centre round” (Br) are often heard in speech and seen in writing on the Web:

Other concerns centered around decreased property values.—Book published by SUNY Press, 2004.

Our concerns center around response time to our emergency rooms.—Statement issued by a Florida medical center.

The main issues centre round the high level of ambient noise in the area.—Canadian newspaper.

These concerns centre round the following issues:—Trinity College, Dublin.

These proposals centre round the proposition that core labour standards should be incorporated into a “social clause” in international trade agreements.—Australian source.

The economic crisis gives rise to its own particular claims, specifically those brought by lenders against solicitors and valuers, which tend to centre round the professional’s alleged failure to report information which would have affected the decision to lend.—UK law journal.

British and American style guides generally advise against this usage on the grounds that it is illogical. The preferred prepositions to use with the verb center/centre are on and in.

The objection to “center around” is that something centered is fixed in a certain place. Therefore, it cannot move around something else. Concerns may “revolve around issues,” but they cannot “center around” them.

The edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage published in 1924 does not mention this idiom, but the Second Edition, published in 1965 and revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, calls attention to it. Admitting that idioms are not required to be logical, the editor nevertheless rejects “centre round” because “centre in” or “centre on” are logical, and “centre round” is not:

There is nothing to be said for preferring the illogical centre round, as though centre and gather were synonymous. As a noun centre has its own precise meaning and should not be used as a genteelism for middle.

The Penguin Writer’s Manual (2002) points out that, logically, the verb centre should be “followed by the prepositions at, in, on, or upon.” However, it also notes that “the phrase centre around or round is well established and has been used by many respected writers such as Conrad and Kipling.”

The Chicago Manual of Style weighs in against “center around” in its “Good usage versus common usage” section:

Although this illogical phrasing does have apologists, careful writers tend to use either center on or revolve around.

Professor Brians (Common Errors in English Usage) has nothing mitigating to say in its defense:

Two perfectly good expressions—“center on” and “revolve around”—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will “center around the topic of” whatever, my interest level plummets.

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3 Responses to “Center Around and Centre Round”

  • thebluebird11

    This is another one of those idioms that I have tossed into my “ignore” pile. Yes it is illogical to say “center around.” Yes we have perfectly good phrases like “revolve around” or “focus on.” Yes people should get out of the habit of using the word “center” so that they don’t make the mistake to begin with. But is this illogical idiom going away any time soon? I doubt it. I would say that in spoken communication, I would be more likely to gloss over it; in writing, I would notice it but not get my panties in a knot.
    Right now I am more concerned about an error on a DOT website that at least twice used ” its’ ,” thinking that to indicate possessive, “its” needed an apostrophe. I did a double-take each time and thought maybe I was wrong to think it didn’t need the apostrophe…[shudder].

  • venqax

    It wouldn’t get much of a rise out of me, and it is a somewhat common idiom. Nonetheless, I would say it is wrong, in writing especially, and would say that being both nonsensical and unneeded are 2 very good reasons to condemn its use.

  • Brendan

    I’m delighted to see this article. I thought I was the only one who disliked the usage referred to.

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