• 3-minute read
  • 6th January 2016

The Many Uses of the Word ‘About’

According to the Global Language Monitor, there are around 1,025,109.8 words in the English language (presumably the 0.8 of a word is an abbreviation). You’d have thought that this would mean we have enough words to go round, yet for some reason ‘about’ has roughly 15 different meanings.

As such, it’s unsurprising that many people, especially those for whom English is a second language, find using this word a little tricky. Herein, we run through some of the main meanings of ‘about’ you’re likely to encounter in academic writing, along with a few less formal uses that you might need to know.

The Main Uses of ‘About’

Some of the most important uses of this word in academic writing are when it is used as a preposition or an adverb, especially in the following three senses:

1.     Concerning

In this case, about is used as a preposition meaning ‘concerning’ or ‘with regards to’, such as when we say a book is ‘about’ a specific subject:

A master baker, J. R. Irons wrote extensively about bread.

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.

2.     Approximately/Almost

As an adverb, ‘about’ can also mean ‘roughly’ or ‘nearly’. This includes both approximation (i.e. things being almost alike) and the sense of something being near completion:

Each focus group session lasted about an hour.

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3.     On the Verge of

Another adverbial meaning of this term is  to mean ‘on the verge of’. This is used when we’re describing something that is going to occur imminently:

Just as the interviews were about to begin, one candidate dropped out.

Other Uses of ‘About’

We won’t try to cover every possible use of ‘about’ in this one post, but we will include a few more definitions that can be handy to know in everyday life:

1.     In the Vicinity of/Surrounding

We’re mashing a few senses of this word together here, but the main thing is that it can be used to indicate a location or geographical proximity.

We might, for instance, say that there are ‘trees all about’ if we’re out in the woods or ‘look about’ for something we need.

2.     Reverse

We say something has made an ‘about turn’ to mean it has turned around and now faces in the opposite direction.

3.     In Possession/Command of

We may say that we have something ‘about our person’ if we have it with us, or that someone has their ‘wits about them’ to suggest they’re self-possessed.

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