Dot Wordsworth


British English is suffering from prepositionitis, unable to come out with the correct one when it’s needed

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Crooning is I think the word to describe what my husband was doing to the lyrics of a Beach Boys number. ‘Round, round, get around, I get around,’ he crooned ludicrously, for no one less like a Beach Boy than he, with his frayed tweed jacket cuffs, could be imagined. He was, however, right if he was implying that the boys from Hawthorne, California, were having their cake and eating it. Generally, where a choice is possible, Americans prefer around and the British prefer round. I can’t get used to references to All-Around Gymnastics. What next, cricketing all-arounders?

Anyway, British English is suffering from prepositionitis, unable to come out with the correct preposition when it’s needed. I have been complaining about across since I wrote about it here in 2011, and on Saturday I heard two absurd examples: an announcer on Radio 4 plugging coverage of the Commonwealth Games ‘across the BBC’ and the agreeable Bridget Kendall speaking of cotton in use ‘across the globe’. If anything’s round, one would have thought it was the globe. Yet I find that the Oxford English Dictionary has 12 quotations illustrating other words (since it has no separate entry for across the globe) which happen to include this phrase.

As for around, it thrives in some jargon-infested semantic wastelands in constructions that you and I never use: issues around anger-management, for example. It is more insidious when we hear it, not from emissaries of Human Resources, but from the lips of quite ordinary citizens. I should like to defend about from the encroachments of the invasive species around, specifically in a phrase like about 300. In Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield, the current curator, notes: ‘British English tends to prefer about as a preposition meaning “approximately”.’ Around seems less bad with times: around three o’clock, perhaps because points on a clock face have areas around them. But repeated use in British newspapers of around 40 per cent or around 20,000 Palestinians has the cumulative effect of suggesting one is reading something American. It is hardly a nationalist point to expect British words for British readers.