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Example:

He paced about/around the room.

Can those words be used interchangeably? If that's the case, which one is more common?

  • You cannot use around in this case. It is a fixed expression. I'd say you can only use them interchangeably in a minority of cases, probably mainly when you're talking about physically standing or going around/about something. books.google.com/ngrams/… – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 22 '14 at 1:58
  • @Cerberus how about this new example? – janoChen Feb 22 '14 at 2:00
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    Sounds good to me! You can use either there. books.google.com/ngrams/… – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 22 '14 at 2:02
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    They can be used interchangeably for estimation: He was about 30. He was around 30. – Digital Chris Feb 22 '14 at 3:54
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In American English, yes, one can both pace about and around a room. Both are correct, and both mean the same thing - to walk randomly in the room or possibly along the periphery.

Around doesn't always mean on the outside circumference of something. Two relevant definitions from the OED:

About (adv): 5. In U.S.: = about adv. a. Here and there with no fixed direction; all about, at random; as in ‘to travel around,’ ‘to fool around’.

About (prep): 4. U.S. (a) Hither and thither over, at random through, about; as in ‘to travel around the country’. (b) Of time, amount, etc.: about, sometime near.

In most cases, however, about is not interchangeable with around.

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Often, the preposition around is used as shorthand for around various physical spaces inside the confines of; while this is not technically correct English, the practice has certainly become accepted via folk etymology, that is, through evolution of language as it is used by laypeople over time.

One cannot, technically, pace around the room while being inside of the room; the very abstraction implied by around involves space specifically adjacent to but strictly not including (the object of the prepositional phrase). One who paces around the room technically walks near the room but not inside of it.

In contrast, the preposition about implies much more flexible criteria describing the relationship of the verb-implied-action to the object of the prepositional phrase. A common word preceding about is the verb to talk, for example, and someone who talks about the room is most likely talking such that the content of their words, or their message, is directly related to the room and its properties as a noun-thing.

It should be pointed out, however, that to talk about the room may also be inferred such as to conjure the image of someone talking, on an unspecified subject, while physically occupying various spaces inside the room.

Prepositions are probably more prone to the confusions associated with folk-etymological development than would be prone any other part of speech. This might be, in part, because prepositions are essentially pseudo-mathematical in nature, in the sense that they are used to compare, contrast, and ultimately triangulate between two or more ideas; that is, they are used to define one thing by means of/relativity to another thing.

Such insertion of very logical operation into language is recipe for confusion.

Observing this basic pattern, and following it successfully to its logical conclusion, that almost all stated ideas involving preposition-phrases can be described in at least two different manners, I find it silly to suggest that any particular preposition is correct.

And unless you can tell me right now whether I just spoke around prepositions or spoke about prepositions and back up your answer with a definitive unarguable proof, it would seem you might be wise to consider adopting a similar attitude towards prepositions in the English language.

  • Native speakers of English are "laypeople"? Also, folk etymology specifically relates to borrowed words. It does not refer to language change in general. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_etymology – WinnieNicklaus Feb 22 '14 at 2:42
  • see the very first line of the article you've cited; it is a disambiguation link to another article that happens to be titled "false etymology" on wikipedia. i apologize that my ironic usage of "folk etymology" and "layperson" and several other obvious falsely-evolved nouns is not appreciated here; my assumptions about (around?) language forums may be incorrect. – miercoledi Feb 22 '14 at 2:48
  • My objection was to the notion that the typical usage of around (or the typical usage of anything) is "not technically correct". But that's not a battle for SE comment threads. Just two notes on your terminology: nothing you have discussed is etymology (word origins), and about and around are examples of prepositions, not pronouns. – WinnieNicklaus Feb 22 '14 at 3:00
  • thank you kindly for pointing out my continued use of "pronoun" where i meant "preposition" - there was nothing intentional or artistic about that, simply a mistake - i will make that change right away. – miercoledi Feb 22 '14 at 3:04
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    You're talking about the evolution of syntax, whereas etymology would be concerned with the word itself -- its pronunciation, meaning, source language, etc. You could argue that how a word is used syntactically could be included, but IMO that is just more than is usually meant by the word "etymology". And even if so, folk/false etymology is not the acceptance of nonstandard constructions or vocabulary, but rather popular, incorrect explanations of how those words came to be. – WinnieNicklaus Feb 22 '14 at 3:32

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