Circumlocution

By Maeve Maddox

The noun locution comes from a Latin verb meaning “to speak.” As an English noun it means “a form of expression.” The prefix circum- is also from Latin and means “around.”

Circumlocution, therefore, means “expressing oneself in a round about way.”

Circumlocution has its uses. Alexander Pope uses it to comic effect in his mock epic, The Rape of the Lock, as when he refers to a little pair of scissors as “a two-edged weapon” and a “little engine.”

Politicians, educators, and other people who want to manipulate our perceptions of reality find circumlocution an effective means of obscuring meaning or making something ordinary seem special or profound. For example,

collateral damage
ethnic cleansing
economical with the truth
mistakes were made
text-to-text connections (comparison of two books)
extended constructed response (essay)
brief constructed response (paragraph)
selected response (multiple choice)

As can be seen from the examples, euphemism is a type of circumlocution, as are many clichés.

Euphemism: referring to something unpleasant by more pleasant words, for example, “passed away” for died.

Cliché: a stereotyped or commonplace expression, for example, “It was raining cats and dogs.”

Here are some examples of circumlocution from the web; italics mine:

The Committee must afford an opportunity for public comment at each of its meetings. –Illinois General Assembly statutes.

At this point in time, we do not have evidence of consumers postponing expenditure plans, which is something one would observe in a deflationary environment,” Draghi told a symposium organized by the Bundesbank. –European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.

Why does the University have a requirement for health insurance as condition of enrollment?

According to Brandimonte this was due to the fact that the subtraction task was easier…

The department may peremptorily suspend the driving privilege of the person until such time as the licensee shall have submitted to re-examination.

The examples could be rewritten to avoid circumlocution:

“The Committee must permit public comment…”
“At this time, we do not have evidence…”
“Why does the University require health insurance…”
“According to Brandimonte this was because…”

Here, with suggested translations, are some prepositional phrases that often contribute to circumlocution:

in light of the fact (because)
in reference to (about)
with the exception of (except)
in the event of (if)
in a timely fashion (quickly)
notwithstanding the fact that (although)
on the grounds that (because)
in view of the fact that (because)

Circumlocution for stylistic effect can be useful to create a humorous effect or to create a pompous or deceitful fictional character. In writing intended to convey information in a straightforward manner, however, circumlocution is a major stylistic defect.

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4 Responses to “Circumlocution”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello, Maeve,
    I am happy to see you speaking up against what I have often criticized: excessive wordiness in writing and speaking, and the use of excessively long words (e.g. “notwithstanding”). Call one variety of it “circumlocution”.
    Sir Winston Churchill spoke out about excessive wordiness, too.

    I was watching a rerun of a TV program from the 1950s or 60s recently, and a character said, “Now, I am going to us a six-dollar word.” Yes, it was a long one. Nowadays, that might be more like a $30.00 word.” (e.g. magnetohydrodynamics). Do I hear a $40.00 word?

    Note also, “at this point in time” can often be replaced by “now” or “right now”.
    D.A.W.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “At this point in time, we do not have evidence of consumers postponing expenditure plans, which is something one would observe in a deflationary environment,” Draghi told a symposium organized by the Bundesbank. (The European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.)

    Note that the above might have been translated poorly from German or Italian into English. I said “German” because the most important city for banking in continental Europe is Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and I said “Italian” because “Draghi” sounds Italian, and banking began in Italy long before it began in Germany or anywhere else. (Probably during the Middle Ages) There are still very large banks in Italy.

    On the other hand, since English is the international language of business, aviation, and science in Europe, Mr. Draghi might have been speaking English.

    I read an article about a large French scientific journal. The article announced that the journal would no longer be published in FRENCH !
    The purposes behind this are twofold:
    1). The English version of the French journal was selling far more copies than the French one was. (Likewise for the Web site.)
    2). Most of the proposed articles for the journal were being submitted in English rather than in French or any other language.

    Thus the business staff of the journal was having to spend a huge amount of money every year to get articles translated into French for evaluation and publication. Dropping the French edition would save a lot of money – and evaluation and publishing scientific articles is an expensive proposition to begin with. The same goes for engineering journals, medical journals, etc.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    Every time I read posts like this, I cringe internally because I’m sure I’m guilty of using some of these expressions, and circumlocution/wordiness in general. I guess we hear these phrases so often that they become acceptable to our ears, and if I say someone “died,” (instead of “passed away” or “passed”), people look at me funny. I mean, most people do not say “died” anymore. In medicalese we say “expired.” I hate it! If I dictate a hospital chart on a patient who DIED, I have to call it an expiration summary; I mention the date the patient was admitted (to the hospital) and then the expiration date. As if the person were a can of beans on a supermarket shelf. But if you say “date of death” it sounds…shocking. We still use products after their official expiration dates, so maybe people still seen alive if they have “expired,” not so much so if they’ve “died.” Sigh.

  • Stefano

    @DAW
    I disagree with your statement that “at this point in time” might have been a poor translation from German (?) or Italian into English.
    It’s just a circumlocution, just unnecessary—while fully grammatical—wordiness.
    Four days ago, Secretary of State john Kerry said [about the Ukraine crisis]: “Our hope is not to create hysteria or excessive concern about that at this point in time,”
    Was that a poor translation from—uh—what language?

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