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A New Contest, Centered Around Usage

For a Lingua Franca post of mine last week that centered around the name of a dog in a movie, the very first comment centered around neither the dog nor the movie, but the phrase “centered around” itself. “Earshape” wrote: “I do not expect someone careful about language to say CENTERED AROUND.”

Why not?

I chose “centered around” rather than the alternative “centered on,” because the movie did not always focus directly on the dog. Rather, the dog was the center of things going on around it. Officer, my poetic license is up to date.

But to find out why a careful language person should be expected to avoid “centered around,” let’s turn to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the trustworthy guide not only to actual usage but to the history of critical comments on usage. Like the Congressional Budget Office, it’s nonpartisan; it simply presents the facts.

And the facts are that until the 1920s, nobody complained about “center around.” Then, some as yet unidentified maven started the ball rolling by declaring that “center around” is illogical. Others picked up this stricture, and soon it spread like a computer virus through the usage handbooks, with the warning that “some people” consider it illogical.

What’s so illogical about “centered about”? Well, the logic is complicated, and it’s a matter of debate.

But surprise! This post is not about the logic or illogic of “center around.” Rather, it’s to announce a new contest, one that takes “center around” as a model.

So please, don’t waste your hammer and tongs on the logic of “center around.” Instead, take this opportunity to forge a brand-new usage rule that will pointlessly vex students in English composition classes, and writers for publications, for generations to come.

To enter the contest, just comment on this post, as follows:

  • State your new rule,
  • explain its logic, and
  • give an example of a sentence that violates the rule, and show how to correct it.

The rule has to be a brand new one, not announced in any previous usage manual, but—and this is the hard part—it has to look venerable. Nobody is going to pay attention to a rule that looks new and arbitrary and idiosyncratic. No, you want a rule that appears to have been followed by careful writers all along, while being misused or ignored by careless writers.

In other words, it should be like “center around.” You need to find something people frequently say or write, show its illogic, and insist on its eradication from good writing. And don’t worry, you can find logic to approve or condemn any usage. Language is conventional, not logical.

Everyone has pet peeves about language, but most are too obviously just pet peeves about vocabulary. The annual list from Lake Superior State University of words that should be banished is an example of what not to do for my contest. It’s too simple and obvious to say we shouldn’t say “amazing,” “shared sacrifice,” “man cave,” or “thank you in advance,” to take examples from their 2012 list. No, it should be a matter of grammar, like the question of which preposition to use with the verb “center.”

You have until midnight a week from today, Wednesday October 10, to submit your entry as a comment on this post. Once again there will be a prize for the winner, something by the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word; Presidential Voices; Predicting New Words; How We Talk; The World in So Many Words; and America in So Many Words.

Get centered, and start thinking!

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