Round vs. Around

By Maeve Maddox

One of the differences between American and British English is the usage of the words round and around. Americans use around in contexts in which most British speakers prefer round.

The word round has five grammatical functions: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and preposition.

The fighter was able to go another round. (noun)
We watched as the runner rounded first base. (verb)
Do you want a round plate or a square one? (adjective)
The bridge was out, so we had to go round. (adverb)
The tiger ran round the tree. (preposition)

Round came into the language as a noun meaning “a circular object.” At various times, the “circular object” was a racecourse, a ring, and a coin. In a text from 1325, round is the word used for a diadem encircling the head of a man in a painting. Chaucer used round in the sense of a globe. In Macbeth, Shakespeare used round as a word for a sovereign’s crown.

Around was formed from the noun round by adding the prefix a-, a variation of the prefix on-, creating an adverb that meant “in a circle.”

In some contexts, British speakers use round and around interchangeably; for example, either “He put his arm round her,” or “He put his arm around her.”

Otherwise, according to a note in the British English section of Oxford Dictionaries, there’s a general preference among British speakers to use round for “definite, specific movement,” and around in contexts that are less definite. For example,

She turned round.
A bus came round the corner.
She wandered around for ages.

The computer cost around £3,000.
According to a rumor circulating around the track, he’s using steroids.

American usage sometimes reflects British usage by using round, but around is more common.

Although the Oxford note says that in most contexts, “round is generally regarded as informal or non-standard,” I haven’t found anything in Merriam-Webster or the Chicago Manual of Style to indicate that using round the way the British do is “non-standard” in American usage. It may be old-fashioned, but it is not unknown in American writing:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world. –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn,” 1837

I should like if my sisters are well and all the people round the neighborhood. –letter from Peter Van Wagener (son of Sojourner Truth), March 22, 1841

The usage is still seen in emails and web comments by American speakers:

We live downtown and I take them round the neighborhood, –A mother talking about taking children trick or treating in Sacramento, California.

One of the latest scams going round is that someone will stop you and ask if you are interested in perfume, –email debunked on Snopes.com/.

The strange form ‘round crops up in both British and American contexts, but as round is not a shortening of around, and as there’s no law against the American use of round to mean around, the apostrophe makes no sense in either dialect.

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6 Responses to “Round vs. Around”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Chaucer used round in the sense of a globe.”
    I do not know much about Chaucer and other antique writers, but in modern language “The world is round and NOT flat.”
    Here, the word “round” means “globular”.
    Hence, there is a contrast in meaning in two different uses of “round”, and that needs to be mentioned.
    1). Round like a silver dollar, a Canadian dollar**, or a hockey puck.
    Two dimensional.
    2). Round like a basketball, an orange, or a beach ball.
    Three dimensional.
    Decades ago, I thought that “the world is round” meant that it was shaped like a silver dollar, and not square or triangular. Later on, I found out that they meant round like a coconut.

    **In Canadian money, it is now possible to get $1.00 or $2.00 only in coins. The smallest banknote that there is is the $5.00 bill. The change away from $2.00 bills was done sometime in the 1990s, and I remember Canadian $2.00 bills from when I went on vacation in Ontario in 1988. Also, most Canadian businesses are happy to receive American dollars and cents, too.
    Also, when I visited northern Mexico, I found that most merchants gladly accepted American money instead of Mexican pesos. When I asked “How much does that cost?” or “Cuanto dinero?”, I most often got an answer like “ten dollars” or “twenty dollars”
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I think you’re just looking for the word *spherical*. And yes, round is sometimes used to mean spherical or globular, even though either of those words would be more accurate.

    “but in modern language “The world is round and NOT flat.”

    Interestingly, it isn’t only in language. A lot of studies support the theory that the world today is round and NOT flat. Of course whether that was true in Chaucer’s time is unknown.

  • Rich Wheeler

    * I would hesitate to cite poetry or internet messages as authority for any particular usage. One finds innumerable, unspeakable atrocities committed against English in those elements.

    * Since a sphere forms a disk in its projection on one’s retina or in a pictorial representation, calling the world round could be considered a commonly accepted underrepresentation (hypobole ?).

    * In “The bridge was out, so we had to go round,” ’round’ does not by itself modify ‘go’. Round leads an implied, adverbial, prepositional phrase, “round the chasm.” “The chasm” remains silent because the writer considers it sufficiently obvious that it becomes redundant. Round remains a preposition. However, for the sake of simplification, I concede that round is an adverb… just as, for the sake of simplification, we say the Earth is round.

    * Ignoring the other uses of round (for example, as a noun in “a round of golf” or as a verb in “rounding the bases”): I have always seen a distinct division between round as an adjective and around as a preposition (or adverbial preposition). Because the division between the two seemed so clear, I thought that round, as a preposition, was a contraction of around. It therefore made perfect sense to me to place an apostrophe in the place of the dropped vowel.

    How interesting that this word morphed from round to around and now back again. It proves the saying that what goes around comes round. ‘Tis the round of life.

  • Raspal Seni

    I didn’t know the wrod round was from U.K. English and around was from U.S. Thanks for this post and explaining the difference and that both words can be used interchangeably.

  • venqax

    Whoa there Raspal Seni! Not interchangeably. You still can’t say a ball is around, we are playing an around of golf, the postman is making his arounds.

    Also, as the article states, there is distinction in British between round and around:
    OED:there’s a general preference among British speakers to use round for “definite, specific movement,” and around in contexts that are less definite.

    Lastly, it’s something of US/UK thing. So if you are writing in American English, don’t use round for around.

  • Jonathan Holden

    I’m here a little late to the game, but I have a question for you all. I am writing a series of children’s books “Tommyfield walks a/round the garden/village/town/city/wherever.” They are going to be international best sellers. So, as a British writer, with an American wife, do I choose “around” or “round”?
    (I know which I am most likely to use, but I’m up for the debate.

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