Grammar When Idioms Become Monsters |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

When Idioms Become Monsters

Close but no cigar, fly off the handle, he is pulling your leg, I was beside myself—we see idioms like these all the time, even though the closer we look, the less sense many of them make.

Sometimes two familiar expressions get jumbled. When that happens, the result is what you might call a “Frankenstein formation,” a nod to the mad scientist who created a monster by conjoining parts that didn’t belong together.

One Frankenstein formation that may never go away is center around. You see and hear it everywhere. Two of the numerous examples found online: “The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.” “My research centers around the geometry of moduli spaces.”

The language scholar Wilson Follett calls center around a “geometrically senseless expression.” It results from mashing together center on and revolve around. Because those phrases are roughly synonymous, over time they merge in the mind.

Some otherwise intelligent language mavens now defend center around, apparently reasoning that if enough heedless people keep saying something, it becomes acceptable. Others are having none of it. As Paul Brians says in Common Errors in English Usage: “Two perfectly good expressions—‘center on’ and ‘revolve around’—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will ‘center around the topic of’ whatever, my interest level plummets.”

Another hardy Frankenstein formation is fall between the cracks: “News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks.” “Every day this country’s health insurance situation lets people fall between the cracks.”

The original expression is fall through the cracks. People or things that “fall through the cracks” slip away unnoticed and are soon forgotten. If we take a close look at fall between the cracks, we find that it doesn’t convey the intended meaning.

Picture a road surface after an earthquake. Large cracks have opened up. If people fall between these cracks, they have fallen onto the hard surface of the roadway.

Such a fall would certainly do some damage, but when people fall between the cracks, at least they do not disappear through the cracks—we can see them lying on the ground, and maybe we can be of some assistance.

Fall through the cracks refers to a different kind of painful experience: the pain of suffering in isolation.

Fall between the cracks seems to have resulted from scrambling fall through the cracks and fall between two stools, an idiom roughly meaning “to fail,” which dates back to the late fourteenth century.

Although some idioms are revealed as absurd under close analysis, many of them made more sense before time or misuse undermined them. Even if they now strike us as a bit off, like a daft but well-meaning old friend, it is up to us to ensure that nobody addles them further.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

6 responses to “When Idioms Become Monsters”

  1. Kathryn L says:

    Having spent many summers at a beach town on the eastern shore, I can attest to the fact that it is certainly possible for something to fall through the cracks of a boardwalk. Maybe this, rather than a sidewalk, is what is meant by that idiom.

    • Roxanne says:

      Your example of something “falling through the cracks” of a boardwalk is perfectly acceptable. The objectionable phrase is “falling between the cracks”. If you dropped something on the boardwalk and it fell between the cracks, you’d likely be able to retrieve it without getting wet. If that same item falls through the crack, (one singular crack), you’d best be prepared to “swim with the fishes” to get it back!

  2. Lauren @ Pure Text says:

    Haha! I never noticed how absurd “center around” is.

    I don’t remember encountering it often while editing, but I’ll be sure to separate that Frankenstein formation and recommend one or the other shall I come across it.

    Thanks so much for all your grammar insight and for answering everyone’s questions so diligently in the comments, GrammarBook (i.e., the wonderful Jane and Lester).

    -Lauren Ruiz

  3. setrah says:

    *query does not apply to this blog post

    re: with a view to vs with the view to

    is there a difference? or should it be with a view to and with the view of?

    I have made plans to see him in six months’ time to reassess his problems with a view to/with the view to booking him for review at that stage if he would like to proceed.

    thanks in advance

    • We recommend recasting your sentence as follows:
      “I have made plans to see him in six months to reassess his problems, with the intention of booking him for review at that stage if he would like to proceed.”

  4. Susan C. says:

    I’m not sure what topic to categorize this statement…unless there is a category for totally irritating and poor grammar. “It’s my bad”. Why is it popular with so many professionals, speakers, & intellectual adults? I lose total interest in the conversation or speech and they lose my respect. It is not cute, funny, nor entertaining in any way. Thank you for letting me share my opinion.

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