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The other day I was talking to a friend about when to use "middle" or "center". I was using it in the context of top, middle, bottom, as a listing, and he suggested it should be top, center, bottom.

I want to know whether it should be middle or center.

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    In CSS middle is used for vertical alignment and center for horizontal I think. Sep 22, 2014 at 22:31
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    @MartinSmith Yeah, but I strongly suspect they did that just because they didn't want to use the same name for both.
    – Jay
    Sep 23, 2014 at 13:17
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    "I am in the middle of baking a cake" does not mean I'm exactly half way through the process, it means I'm deeply involved. "I am in the center of baking a cake" just sounds like nonsense. "I'm in the middle of a crowd" does not necessarily imply "I'm in the center of a crowd". Sep 11, 2015 at 14:19
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    Middle is a vague, imprecise concept, relying on RANK rather than dimensional length: "middle of nowhere", "middle of conversation" (mean only away from the ends), "middle age", "middle class", "midsection". Center is a much more precise concept, usually referring to a quantity itself - not just its rank. "Center of the circle", "center of attention", "center of the universe". Top/middle/bottom is correct. If left/right, front/back is included, then center becomes more appropriate.
    – A.S.
    Mar 1, 2016 at 11:04
  • There's probably something to do with grounding metaphors going on here. George Lakoff's work points to our two grounding metaphors being 'containment' (which could be akin to the idea of 'being the centre of attention') and 'continuum' (which could be akin to the idea of 'being in the middle of something, usually a process). Dec 22, 2020 at 20:17

5 Answers 5

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They're synonyms, and are pretty much interchangeable.

Maybe, maybe, a native speaker would be more likely to say "middle" when speaking of things arranged along a line, i.e. one dimension, and "center" when speaking of two dimensional arrangements. Like we tend to talk about the middle of a line but the center of a circle. But it wouldn't be glaring to switch them.

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  • astute observation.
    – Fattie
    Sep 22, 2014 at 17:55
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    This. You normally use center for multi-dimensional context. You can use "in the middle of a forest" to mean it's somewhere in the forest, but "in the center of the forest" heavily implies it's at the symmetrical center in length and width
    – Raestloz
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:17
  • A note, time periods are also two-dimensional (so we're more likely to use "middle" with them, like "the middle of the day").
    – herisson
    Sep 11, 2015 at 9:50
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    @sumelic You mean one-dimensional?
    – L. F.
    Mar 2, 2019 at 11:27
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  • Middle means the half-position between two horizontal lines, levels, or a position in the Y-axis.
  • Center means the half-position between two vertical lines, pillars, or a position in the X-axis.

In other words, middle gets typically used when there is a sense of progression between two points (either concrete or abstract). On the other hand, center gets used when the two extreme points are equally important or otherwise one no better than the other.

That's why there are center aligned texts and middle aligned images.

In sociology that's why there is a middle class, to distinguish from lower and upper classes. Similarly with the phrase mid-career because seniority is viewed as going upwards. These things are viewed as a ladder or otherwise something that goes upwards/downwards (i.e. vertically). There is no center class nor center career. Similarly for time progression, "I am in the middle of baking a cake."

Likewise there is the center of a stage and the center of attention. There isn't any middle stage nor middle attention, because those aren't thought of having "levels" but instead go along the horizontal axis.

Humans views things mostly two dimensionally, since both of our eyes faces the same direction and we don't have penetrative vision (e.g. sonar). Imagine that you're looking at a wall, what you're seeing is mostly two dimensions – there is the width of the wall which goes from left to right and the height of the wall which goes from bottom to top. You can't really see the depth of the wall since you don't have X-ray or sonar vision.

Because of this, we tend to think two dimensionally as well. For example career movement, there is a lateral movement in which you move to a different role with similar rank/salary/responsibility or a vertical movement in which you get promoted with improved salary & increased responsibility.

Reference:

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  • I think there's something to what you say, but it doesn't apply in all contexts. The same distinction is used in phonetics terminology, for example; "mid vowels" are in between low and high vowels, while "central vowels" are in between front and back vowels.
    – herisson
    Sep 11, 2015 at 8:40
  • @sumelic Your phonetics terminology works in the Y & Z axes – still in two dimensions, but just different second dimension. Again, because human thinking are mostly two-dimensional (that's why it's a lot harder to become a pilot rather than to drive a car).
    – adib
    Sep 11, 2015 at 11:52
  • @sumelic forward & backward are also "levels", but in the Z axis. I.e. there is "progression" that is about moving forward or moving upward.
    – adib
    Sep 13, 2015 at 2:11
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    This is true just for CSS.
    – James
    Sep 13, 2015 at 2:18
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    @sumelic Not really. Middle-aligned images are aligned to the middle of the current text baseline (i.e. vertical alignment) hence parallel to "middle class".
    – adib
    May 17, 2017 at 8:58
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Of course, the word "center" has some uses that do not overlap with "middle" at all, like in the names of organizations ("The Center for X").

There are also a number of fixed expressions where the words obviously cannot be interchanged, like "the middle of nowhere", "the middle ear", "the Middle East".

Differences that I think exist between "center" and "middle" in other contexts:

  • The word "middle" is used more often than "center" when referring to time. You can say "the middle of the day" but we usually don't say "the center of the day". The phrase "in the middle of" is often used to refer to something that is unfinished and still in progress.

  • The word "center" feels more appropriate to me than "middle" in certain contexts where you are talking about something that is "centered" in multiple dimensions, like the center of a circle: "the exact center of the bullseye" sounds better to me than "the exact middle of the bullseye".

I think my advice here is supported by the results of a Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) comparison that I looked at between "the center of" and "the middle of". The top collocates that were used with "the center of" more often than "the middle of" included things like "galaxy", "universe", "attention", "labyrinth", "planet", "cosmos"; the top collocates that were used with "the middle of" more often than "the center of" included "night", "afternoon", "decade", "July", "January", "sentence", "century", "divorce", "interview", "grade", "term", "concert", and "wilderness".

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I'm a native English speaker. Intuitively, I think of "Middle" as "between things" and "Center" as in "in the position exactly 50% in one direction".

  • The number between the two arrows to the left of my answer is in the "Middle" and it is also in the "Center". In this case I believe "Center" is a more specific term which is best to use here.

  • The list of tags on this question is in the "Middle" of this questions content, as it is between the text and the share etc buttons, but it is not necessarily in the exact "Center" of the content.

  • "Middle" can mean a general area, while "Center" is more precise. The letters L, M, N, and O are all in the "Middle" of the alphabet, but the "Center" of the alphabet does not really exist, since it would be in-between the letters M and N.

  • With numbers, the "Middle" and "Center" of "1, 2, 3" is 2, the same for both.

"Middle" can be used in some contexts that "Center" cannot ever be used in. If you have one older sibling and one younger sibling, you are the middle child, but you are not the center child.

However, "Center" is not a subset of "Middle", they are different words. "Center" can also be used in some contexts that "Middle" cannot. As another user pointed out, the name of a building may be "The Center for X" but it can't be "The Middle for X".

In your context, I would have to ask, are the objects on the list equally sized, and are there always an odd number of them? If so, "Center" might be better, otherwise I would use "Middle".

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  • What about “middle man” and “center of attention”?
    – adib
    Dec 20, 2020 at 12:40
  • Good examples, both of those are phrases where "middle" and "center" can't be swapped. Dec 22, 2020 at 19:00
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I remember the difference between centre and middle becoming clearer to me during a school chemistry lesson 50 or so years ago. The Frasch process for the extraction of sulphur employs three concentric tubes which reach into the underground sulphur bed. Super heated water is forced down the outer tube to melt the sulphur, hot compressed air is then forced down the central tube and the molten sulphur is forced up the middle tube. Easy! The middle tube lies between the central tube and the outer tube. Middle is a vague term. The middle of a circle could be thought of as the mid point between centre and outer diameter as in the case above, or it could be considered to be the centre. There is no such ambiguity in the term "centre".

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  • Hello David. The Frasch extraction-pipe/s example does give a nice distinction, but 'centre' is often used loosely. 'The centre of the city' can be loosely / conflictingly defined. Aug 19, 2021 at 13:58

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