around, about, approximately

Dear word sommelier: I recently read an article on the AMA Insider about usage of around, about, and approximately. The author counsels people to reserve around for casual contexts and to prefer approximately almost all of the time in technical or formal writing. And the author says that approximately is the most precise and around the least. Is it really that clear-cut?

The author is, without naming it, discussing what linguists call register – variation in style of English usage according to context. He (or she) is quite right that around, about, and approximately bring with them a generally decreasing amount of casualness (respectively) when used in their interchangeable sense.

Now, that casualness is the tone of the utterance, but presenting something with a casual tone also connotes a casual attitude towards the topic. I think if we were to look at usages of the three words, we would probably find that the degree of precision they communicate mathematically is actually pretty much identical – for any given user, “about 3:00,” “around 3:00,” and “approximately 3:00” will likely indicate pretty much the same time span. (I do lack hard data for this assertion, however; this is my unscientific observation. It’s worth a real study.) It’s really the level of concern communicated about precision that varies – a more casual usage conveys a more casual attitude. Also, about is the most standard option, and is thus more plain-vanilla than the other two. If about is ordinary daily-wear clothes, approximately is like putting on a suit with a tie, and around more like putting on your comfy old jeans with rips and frays.

So let’s look at what the different words tend to convey in comparative usage:

“I’ll be there at around three o’clock”: I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I don’t consider it a matter of great concern exactly where in there I arrive.

“I’ll be there at about three o’clock”: I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I perhaps consider it a matter of courtesy to try to look like I’ve made an effort to arrive close to 3:00.

“I’ll be there at approximately three o’clock”: I’m trying to sound technical and impressive. I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I want you to know that whatever time I arrive, it will be within the time period I specified; therefore, you may consider me punctual and scrupulous as long as I do not arrive outside of that time frame.

Let’s try some more:

“That’s about right.” In my estimation, that is pretty much right – close enough, at least. It may in fact even be precisely right.

“That’s around right.” I don’t think anyone would likely even say this; if they did, the hearer might not be sure of the meaning at first, thanks to the different meanings available for around.

“That’s approximately right.” That is not precisely right, and I want you to be aware that while it is within a not unreasonable margin of error of right, it could be more accurate.

“In any given week, approximately 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is a formal report, and we want you to take these numbers as authoritative; our estimates are rounded to tidy numbers because it’s not feasible to get exact figures on this, but you can assume that the real figure is likely within 5,000 of this.

“In any given week, about 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is an article in a magazine or newspaper, and we want you to know that we have this number that is not precise but is reckoned to be within something like 5,000 of the real number.

“In any given week, around 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is an article in a tone that is intended to be friendly and readable, and we want you to understand that this number is not precise – it may be off by as much as 5,000 or so – but it’s suitable for giving you an impression and so we can get away with using it.

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in around an hour.” Don’t fret if we’re running late, because we’re not that concerned, but it’s likely going to be an hour plus (or maybe minus) 15 minutes.

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in about an hour.” I’m making you a promise, but not a precise one; I could be up to 15 minutes late (or early).

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in approximately an hour.” I want you to know that I’m paying attention to the time, but there are other factors that cannot be perfectly foreseen that may delay (or accelerate) or return by up to 15 minutes, and you can’t start tapping your watch in 61 minutes because I have told you this is not a precise prediction.

The thing to remember (aside from that words are known by the company they keep) is that every utterance always takes part in a definition of the circumstance, the relation of the speaker and hearer, and their attitudes towards each other and towards the circumstance and topic. (This is why people who defend rudeness with “I’m just being honest” are lying to you and to themselves. They could communicate the same information with greater respect for the other person. They just want to convey contempt and get away with it.)

So if you use around in a technical document, it will always seem like an injection of lightness or unconcern, a bit of a hand-wave. That has its place, but one has to be careful. On the other hand, using approximately in casual conversation is also potentially humorous due to its insistence on sounding responsible, but in any context it conveys that you’re covering your butt. As to about, it’s not especially technical but it’s not explicitly anything else either.

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2 responses to “around, about, approximately

  1. Thanks, sommelier. Your daily tastings are just the right combination of humour, grammar, and usage. Love them!

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Political speech, feck, Shakespeare, and more | Wordnik

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