When is it okay to use "about" -- How to be more precise when copyediting

Rich Adin recently published a blog post on the vagueness of about. When precision is wanted, he maintains, about isn’t going to cut it.

Adin points out that if you can use a precise date rather than “about 50 years ago,” you won’t make readers work hard for the meaning. His example:

About 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

If your text has a long shelf life, as do the medical textbooks Adin edits, after a while “about 50 years ago” is going to be inaccurate. The second sentence eliminates that future inaccuracy. Writes Adin, “Generally there is no accurate, laser-like precise meaning that can be supplied by a reader when about is associated with a number.”

I agree with his argument to a point. It’s true that using about is not going to give precise information, but the assumption is that precise information is always needed and that’s not true.

Let’s look at two examples:
One phish the author of this article almost fell for about five years ago was filling out a survey for a bank in return for a small amount of money.—Communications of the ACM (January 2012)
Biden told the audience about 25 minutes into his speech that he was cutting his remarks short because of the fire.—Associated Press (2012)

In the first sentence, do we need to know that the author almost fell for a phishing scam 4 years, 10 months, and 16 days, or whatever the precise date was? If the author can’t remember the exact date, does it invalidate his point?

In the second sentence, do we need to know the exact moment Vice President Biden cut his speech short, or is it more important to know that he did?

Other times, the manuscript needs to be vague. Two of the post’s commentators discuss recipes that give directions such as “Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes.” Such phrasing alerts readers that the dish might be done earlier than 25 minutes.

And then there are cases where the writer or publisher wishes to make a situation look better by not being precise:

Nucleic acid extracted from these samples was combined into 48 pools, with 9 or 10 samples per pool. Samples from pools with positive results were identified, and new extractions from these pools were tested individually. However, enough sample material for new extractions was available for only about half of the samples.—Emerging Infectious Diseases (January 2012)

In such cases, I agree with Adin: factual precision is more important than rhythm and style. But copyeditors may lose the battle to business politics.

As I noted above, Adin works with medical textbooks. Factual precision, especially with measures, is often vital, and he should question the use of about.

But such precision is not always necessary for every manuscript. No matter what type of copy you edit, a few simple guidelines can help you ensure that about, and every other word in the manuscript, is the right choice:
  • Know the word’s meaning and standard usage. Don’t be afraid to look them up!
  • Be familiar with the word’s current usages, whether they’re accepted or not. You may be working on a manuscript that would benefit from a current but nonstandard usage (e.g., dialogue in a fiction piece). Check the Corpus of Contemporary American English, Google News, Google Books, and other depositories of published writing for the latest trends.
  • Know the manuscript’s purpose. All manuscripts should precisely communicate meaning, but the meaning might not be precise information. Is it meant to be?
  • Know the intended audience. What usages will they tolerate or not tolerate? Do they demand precise details?
Copyeditors have to think. We have to know when precise information is desired and when it’s not.

“It is the editor’s job to help the author understand what the implications are of the word choices made,” writes Adin, “and provide an opportunity for the author to make alternative choices that may better express the message that the author wants the reader to receive.”

Credits: Copyediting.com