“Around”: the preposition that can make your writing sound slippery and bureaucratic

Last week I reflected on the tendency for business types to favour the invasive-sounding “into” over the correct “to”. Today, I turn my attention to another preposition you should be careful with: “around”.

Perhaps the most frequent misuse of this word is found in the expression “based around” – as in “a relationship based around trust” or “a novel based around a true story”.

I can’t describe this error any better than Professor Paul Brians, who says in his Common Errors in English:

“You can build a structure around a center; but bases go on the bottom of things, so you can’t base something around something else.”

Elsewhere, incorrect use of the word “around” can make you sound like a mealy-mouthed bureaucrat. Because, in contrast to the perceived penetrative dynamism of “into”, “around” often seems to be called upon in a deliberate attempt to be less direct. To soften. To prevaricate.

For example, I once heard an executive say that he had been “talking around” a particular topic with a colleague. To me, there’s something rather evasive about this strange expression.

Aren’t subjects usually talked about? But skirted around? It makes me wonder how much useful information was actually exchanged.

Similarly, the same speaker expressed an intention to “remind other people around” a certain issue. But doesn’t one normally remind others “of” something?

To me, if you’re “reminding around” it suggests that you’re abdicating responsibility for actually conveying the information. It implies that you merely intend to make the information available somewhere, in the vague hope that people may notice it’s there.

(Or perhaps that they won’t? Could “reminding around” be a synonym for “consultation”? You know, that legal process in which, for example, you’re obliged to give local residents a chance to discuss your intention to build a 300ft skyscraper that will block out 90% of their natural light and turn their gardens into post-Cretaceous wastelands. So you pin a notice to a lamppost in 8pt type inviting their comments and then take it down a day later.)

In yet another example of the incorrect usage of “around”, commenter Jody Bruner asked me my thoughts on the expression “let’s have a meeting around that”. Again, there’s something rather bureaucratically slippery about this nasty little phrase, isn’t there?

If you plan to have a meeting “about” something, you can be fairly sure the topic will be included on the agenda, that invitations will be emailed to all the relevant parties, and that something might actually get done as a result of the discussion.

In contrast, a meeting “around” a subject implies that in the unlikely event that someone might be un-bored enough to bring it up, there’ll be a vague, meandering discussion of the topic, the conclusion of which will be the need to discuss the possibility of putting it on the agenda for next month’s meeting.

I also recently came across a document urging executives to “manage employees’ expectations around key deliverables”. Setting aside the use of that repulsive non-word “deliverables”, don’t people normally have expectations “of” or “about” something?

But of course, if you have expectations “of” something, then you can articulate what those expectations are. In contrast, expectations “around” are nebulous. Unspecific. A bit floaty. And – here’s the rub – therefore hard to manage.

By setting yourself the task of managing these hazy, ill-defined “expectations” you’re preparing yourself for failure. Which is quite fitting, given that the process of managing expectations itself is all about preparing people to accept failure.

So the use of “around” here looks to me like a bureaucratic double hedge.

But what do you think? Is a fondness for the word “around” merely down to ignorance? Or a sure sign of a blame-surfing bureaucrat? Your comments, please!

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7 Responses to ““Around”: the preposition that can make your writing sound slippery and bureaucratic”

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Clare, I believe you put your finger on the cause of the “around” problem – nebulosity. Managers do not like to be pinned down, as it forces decisions to be made. A discussion around compensation plans sounds safer than a discussion about compensation plans. Probably what is needed is a decision about compensation plans. Since business language, like the universe, moving entropically, one wonders what word will replace “around”. Next year, will companies have discussions orbiting compensation plans?

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Ha, ha – I think we should start using the “orbiting” phrase and see how long it takes to catch on.

    You’ve given me an idea for a future post, though – I’m going to explore the differences between the way leaders write and the way managers write.

  3. Jody Bruner says:

    Clare–I love it! I agree that “around” lets people be vague, lazy, and noncommittal. I wish writers were more concrete and took the time to think about what they really need to say. That, of course, is my mission.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    And a very worthwhile mission that is, Jody. I fear we’re fighting a losing battle but that shouldn’t stop us!

  5. Natalya says:

    It is the end of 2011 and the word “around” is, well, still “around” us, and your post and the comments are as timely as ever.

    Happy New Year!

  6. Sandra says:

    Hello there!

    How are you? I liked this article very much.
    I know this article is old, but I hope I can still contact you.
    Would you, please, answer a question?

    I say the phrase, “…in around 1870…” is incorrect, and that it should be “around 1870″. My friend says otherwise.

    Would you settle this disagreement?

    Thank you so much!

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