around, about, and go to

If you hang around social and political activists nowadays, you’ll hear them say things like, “That organization does work around brownfields regulation,” or “We had a great conversation around making our messaging work more impactful.” If you spend your time with humanities scholars, you’ll hear sentences like, “Nabokov’s later texts are about the primacy of the personal,” or “The discourse of late modernity is about alienation.” And lawyers have always been taught to say, “This testimony goes to my client’s whereabouts on the night of Sept. 20″ or “That point goes to Justice O’Connor’s dictum in City of Richmond v Croson ….”

These are three ways of connecting bodies of words, on one hand, to particular issues or subjects, on the other, when the speaker is not sure about the nature of the connection. Obviously, it’s better to avoid any of these expressions, which are overly vague. However, we all have our linguistic weaknesses, and I find the differences in dialect interesting.

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3 Responses to around, about, and go to

  1. Brad Rourke says:

    Here, here, Peter! You put me in mind of my own pet “about” peeve: definitions which aren’t. So often, someone will purport to be about to give a definition of some usually-vague topic…and then not deliver anything more than further vagueness. Something like this: “Many people ask me what leadership is. What’s the definition? Well, it’s simple, really. Leadership is about character.”

    Huh?

    BTW, that’s not a real quote, but a sort of amalgam of things I read and hear.

  2. Fred says:

    I agree that that usage of “around” is annoying, pretentious, and imprecise, but isn’t that a proper use of “about”? (Of course, as a lawyer, I have said “goes to” to mean “is relevant to”, so what do I know?)

  3. Peter Levine says:

    Fred,

    I guess “about” is perfectly fine, grammatically, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. But it can be a poor substitute for a word or phrase that would more precisely explain the relationship between A and B. For example, the Gettysburg Address is not just “about” democracy; it’s a ringing endorsement of it. I see a lot of scholarly writing in the humanities that uses “about” to avoid being precise.

    Peter

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