Some English speakers, copyeditors like myself among them, like logic. We like writing to be neat and tidy: precise words all lined up in their Sunday best, punctuation accentuating their meaning instead of overwhelming it.
Which is why many precision-preferring English speakers avoid using phrases like center around.
“It’s not logical!” we cry, referencing arguments from dependable usage writers like Bryan Garner and Theodore Bernstein. “A center is a single point,” writes Garner in Modern English Usage (5th ed). He puts it at stage 3 of his Language-Change Index: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.”* We can say center on, center in, or center at, Bernstein tells us in The Careful Writer, but if we want to use around, we need to change center.
There are two problems with this argument.
First, center doesn’t just mean “a single point” or “to move toward a single point.” A center can also be a place, like the center of a stage, or the part of an object that is surrounded by something else, such as the filling of a chocolate truffle.
True, a center can also be “a point, pivot, axis, etc., around which anything rotates or revolves” (Dictionary.com), but it can also mean “to be at or come to a center,” either of which center around might refer to:
- “They also failed to rise above factional, patronage organizations centering around particular personalities.” — Asian Affairs, Winter 1995
But maybe that doesn’t convince you. Maybe you’re tempted to use center around only when the center referred to is something that can be encircled, such as a solar system. It’s a literal interpretation, but so what?
You can create more work for yourself and only use center around for circumstances that allow the literal meaning. You can ignore all the other meanings of center, as a verb and a noun, that demonstrate that a center isn’t necessarily a mathematical point, such as the meaning “to come to a focus; converge; concentrate” (Dictionary.com).
The problem is that most uses of center around aren’t literal:
- “These questionable behaviors often center around or are often associated with violence, physical aggression, and delinquency.” — Physical Educator, Winter 2004
- “Instead, technical advances center around measuring energy output during preOlympic rides on the Olympic course, and then using this info to tailor training.” — Bicycling, May 1996
Center around is an idiom and as such it doesn’t have to follow the grammar of its individual words, just its own grammar. Something that is fair and square doesn’t have to be a square. When push comes to shove, there doesn’t have to be any physical contact. Your Sunday best doesn’t have to be the outfit you wear to church every week. And ideas that center around a specific concept don’t have to literally encircle that concept.
Idioms enrich our language, giving readers and listeners a deeper understanding in only a few words. You can choose to use center around just in a literal sense or not at all; there are certainly plenty of ways to reword it, such as center on and revolve around. But why would you limit yourself that way?
Unless your goal is to eliminate idioms from the text, as you might for younger readers or for ESL learners, by all accounts, center around is a legitimate choice.
*Interestingly, an early edition of Garner’s work had the usage at stage 4: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”
A version of this article originally published in April 2013 on Visual Thesaurus.