Copernicus was among the first to try to persuade us that we, the earthbound, circle the sun. That is, our orbit “centers on” the sun, and we “revolve around” it.
But aside from heliocentrism, people frequently say that an issue “centers around” something: A university “organizes events and activities centered around popular science fiction all year”; a library’s summer “activities are centered around music,” while last year, “they were centered around science.”
That can make some grammarians’ heads spin.
“The verb center means to be collected or gathered to a point,” Theodore M. Bernstein says in The Careful Writer. “Therefore, one may use “centered on, centered in, or center at, but one should not use center around.”
The New York Times, the center of Bernstein’s universe, still follows that advice. “Do not write center around,” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, “because the verb means gather at a point. Logic calls for center on, center in or revolve around.”
Garner’s Modern American Usage says: “Something can center on (avoid upon ) or revolve around something else, but it cannot *center around, because the center is technically a single point.” That asterisk is Garner’s way of sniffing that “center around” is of the class of “invariably inferior words or phrases.” Even so, Garner’s puts “center around” at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, which means only diehard snoots sniff at its “properness.”
But many others have a different spin on its usage. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, used by The Times, The Associated Press, and many other news outlets, calls “center around” “informal,” just an orbit or two from perfectly acceptable.
Merriam-Webster takes a whirl at making “center around” perfectly fine: “Center around, a standard idiom, has often been objected to as illogical. The logic on which the objections are based is irrelevant, since center around is an idiom and idioms have their own logic.” American Heritage has a similar usage note.
Idiom rules, logic drools.
Even so, “center around” may have had its moment in the sun, if a Google Ngram of the phrase’s appearance in books is any guide. It soared in popularity between 1900 and 1940, when it passed “revolve around” and “center on,” but has dropped sharply since the mid-1970s, and is now orbiting in the third circle:
People will still object to “center around,” but they’re probably the same people who think you can’t start a sentence with “However.” Ask them if they’re geocentrists, and if they want to start a revolution.