Q&A: Centres around vs centres on?

Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation… This week, which phrase is correct?

Q: Hi there – a friend of mine wrote ‘centres around’ last week when referring to the plot of the film Capote. My old English teacher (many years ago now) always drummed into us that it was ‘centres on’ and ‘revolves around’.
A: Interesting. Do go on…

Q: Well, he said that while the terms were interchangeable, the items within them were not (i.e. the centre of something cannot be around something, as it’s the mid point). Just curious about whether it’s acceptable?
A: First up, we contacted your old English teacher and he says that you still owe him an hour’s detention for dangling your preposition in class that time. But your question is a great one.

Q: And?
A: There’s an entire corner of the populace for which the ‘logic argument’ serves to infuriate them every time they see it used. Clearly your teacher’s strong view rubbed off on his pupils. However, most dictionaries agree that using “centres around” is actually fine (even if “centres on” is used more often).

Q: So how do they justify it? (Despite shrugging and saying “crazy English!”)
A: They shrug and say “crazy English”. There is no plan B.

Q: Better answer please.
A: Okay, fine. Because “centres around” is considered an idiom in this case. And like most idioms, it simply does not need to make sense – it just needs to be universally understood.

Q: An example?
A: Sure. To feel “like a fish out of water” doesn’t mean that you’re dead, or at best flapping around gasping for air – despite that logically being what it should mean. Same thing with our slightly less traumatic, less toilet-flushing-Otto’s-gone-to-a-better-place example of “centres around”.

Q: Hmmm. Sometimes I hate English.
A: Yep. It turns out that your old teacher’s argument centres around only one aspect of its usage…and your friend is off the hook! (Like a fish out of water.)

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