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The word round is the ideal word to illustrate the fact that a word is not a part of speech until it is used in a sentence. Of the eight classic parts of speech–noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, pronoun, and interjection–round can function as five of them.

1. Round as Noun
We speak of a round of golf and the rounds of a boxing match. We sing musical rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Frere Jacques.” Shakespeare spoke of a king’s crown as “a golden round.” The steps of a ladder are called rounds. The creed of the United States Postal Service, translated from Herodotus, declares, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Here are some more common meanings of round as a noun:
a large piece of beef
a slice of bread, especially toast
a regularly recurring sequence
the constant passage and recurrence of days
the act of ringing a set of bells in sequence
a circular route
a regular visit by a doctor or a nurse in a hospital
a set of drinks bought for all the people in a group
an amount of ammunition needed to fire one shot.
a single volley of fire by artillery
an outburst of applause
a period or bout of play at a game or sport
a division of a game show
a session of meetings for discussion

2. Round as Adjective
Anything that is spherical in shape may be described as round, for example, balls marbles, oranges, and grapes. Also round are cake pans, plates, Frisbees, wheels, CDs, and bagels. Vowels can be round, (i.e., enunciated by contracting the lips to form a circular shape.)

Applied to a quantity of something, round can mean large or considerable: “A million dollars is a good round sum.” But applied to an estimate, round means rough or approximate: “The figure of three thousand years was only a round guess.”

Shakespeare and his contemporaries frequently used round in the sense of outspoken: “Sir Toby, I must be round with you.”

Horses can trot at “a good round pace,” and scholars often have “round shoulders.”

3. Round as Verb
You can round a piece of clay into a ball, round the edges of a table, round the bases, round chickens into a corner, round out your gnome collection, round a number, and round suddenly on someone who has been annoying you.

4. Round as Adverb and Preposition
These uses of round are more common in British usage than in American:

“When the door slammed, everyone turned round.” (adverb)
“At last, the bus came round the corner.” (preposition)

See Round vs. Around for a discussion of these two uses of round.

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8 thoughts on “Round”

  1. It’s a very common misunderstanding, but the US Postal Service has no official creed or motto. If it did, it would mention dogs first, last and somewhere in the middle (I did 9 years as a carrier).

  2. As usual Maeve Maddox has offered an in-depth analysis of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Fun to read. And the opportunity to take the time to really think about just one word.

    Great work.

  3. @Marilyn: Agreed. You never really realize the importance, origin, significance or versatility of a particular word until it’s called to your attention the way Maeve does it!

  4. I’ve never seen or heard ’round’ used as a name for the rungs on a ladder–always ‘rungs.’

    When you mentioned round vowels, my brain stumbled, wondering what a non-round vowel was called. I must have known it once upon a time, but I’m too busy to look that up at the moment.

  5. I’ve also never heard the ladder use.

    Also, I was never under the impression that “round figures” in anyway meant “large or considerable.”
    “A million dollars is a good round sum” means that 1,000,000, as opposed to 1,002,106, is a nicely rounded off number, easy to deal with. It’s used when working up estimates or in negotiating prices, and could be used to make a case for a reduction as well as increase: “The total comes to $101.15. Let’s just say $100, that’s a nice round sum.”

    If people are attributing the meaning of “large or considerable” to the word “round” in “a nice round sum” then it is, IMNSHO, one of the BAD shifts in meaning we should be resisting. They might just as well attribute that meaning to word “nice” in that phrase.

  6. A Robert Frost poem makes reference to “a ladder-round” meaning the rung of a ladder. That’s the only instance I know of, but it probably comes from somewhere (assuming Frost didn’t just make it up). Maybe a regionalism?

    @ApK: I second your assumption about the meaning of round in the sense of “rounded off” rather than “large or considerable”. But a quick look on dictionary.com brings up “full, complete, or entire: a round dozen.” which is close.

  7. Maeve,

    Thanks for the ngram chart; it explains why I never heard that before: I just wasn’t around while it was popular.

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