Circumlocution is the act of saying something using more words than necessary, often with the intent of being vague, evasive, or misleading. For example, a politician might use circumlocution by giving a long and vague response to a question, in order to make it difficult for people to notice that the politician didn’t actually answer the question.
People often use circumlocution both intentionally and unintentionally for various reasons, so it’s important to understand this phenomenon. As such, in the following article you will learn more about circumlocution, understand why people use it, and see what you can do to respond to fallacious uses of it, as well as what you can do to avoid using it fallaciously yourself.
Examples of circumlocution
One example of circumlocution is a salesperson who includes many unnecessary technical terms in his offer, in order to confuse the individuals that he’s targeting, and make them more likely to accept the offer.
Another example of circumlocution is a business executive who, in response to being questioned about improper conduct, gives a lengthy and unclear response, to avoid answering the question. An example of what circumlocution can look like in this case appears in the following dialogue:
Reporter: Is it true that your company is being fined for violating multiple laws?
Executive: This is an important question, and, as always, our company is completely and utterly dedicated to diligently following the highly rigorous standards that are set for it by various regulatory bodies, both from a legal perspective, and, even more crucially, from a moral and ethical perspective. Furthermore, even if such organizations might potentially disagree with some of our actions, we nevertheless constantly endeavor to improve our conduct, as we perpetually make progress and move forward in an everchanging world.
Another example of circumlocution is a student who responds to a question from his teacher by saying a lot of filler phrases, in order to stall while he tries to figure out the answer. An example of what circumlocution can look like in this case is the following:
Teacher: Can you tell me what were the causes of this event?
Student: Yes, I’m happy to share the causes of the event that we’re currently discussing. As we all know, based on various sources, the causes of the event in question were, as far as we can tell…
In addition, there are also cases where people use circumlocution in a non-fallacious manner.
For example, people often use circumlocution on search engines, when they don’t know or remember the name of what they’re looking for. An example of this is someone searching for “a machine that puts moisture into the air” if they forgot the word for “humidifier”.
Similarly, people often use circumlocution in writing when they use unnecessarily long phrasing for something because they didn’t think of the shorter possible phrasing. An example of this is someone saying “…this solution has the potential ability to prevent…” instead of the shorter “… this solution can prevent…”.
Note: certain idioms, such as “beating around the bush”, are used to refer to circumlocution and similar forms of communication, while idioms such as “cut to the chase” are used to encourage people to avoid this form of communication.
Why people use circumlocution
Circumlocution is primarily used to the use of too many words with the intent of being vague, evasive, or misleading. This can happen for various reasons, such as that people want to hide their stance or shift attention away from the topic that’s currently being discussed.
When used in this manner, circumlocution is considered fallacious, though there are situations where it can nevertheless be reasonable to use it. For example, this might be the case if someone is pressured to answer a personal question about something they don’t feel comfortable sharing.
Furthermore, people sometimes use circumlocution in a non-fallacious manner, both intentionally and unintentionally. Reasons for this include the following:
- Not knowing or remembering a specific word or phrase.
- Speaking while simultaneously trying to figure out what to say.
- Trying to avoid using technical terms that people might not be familiar with.
- Feeling awkward about something that needs to be discussed.
- Trying to convey politeness (e.g. saying “You don’t happen to have the time, would you?” instead of “Do you have the time?” to signal that you don’t want to impose on the listener).
- Trying to achieve a certain literary effect (e.g. creating a rhyme).
A common situation where people use circumlocution in such a manner is when they’re communicating in a foreign language that they’re still learning. In such cases, circumlocution can be a beneficial strategy, that gives the learner time to remember the word that they’re looking for, or that helps the learner describe concepts that they don’t know the right words for.
Overall, people can use circumlocution intentionally or unintentionally, either in a fallacious manner, such as when they’re trying to be misleading, or in a non-fallacious manner, such as when they don’t remember a certain term.
How to respond to circumlocution
To respond to circumlocution, you need to first identify and understand its use. You can achieve this by asking yourself the following:
- Is this person using more words than necessary? If not, then they’re not engaging in circumlocution. When asking this, you can consider what specifically they said that was unnecessary, and how they could have conveyed the same information in fewer words. In addition, you should consider the degree to which they’re engaging in circumlocution and the way in which they’re doing so, which can help you understand their motivation, and help you identify cases where the circumlocution is so minor that it’s unimportant.
- If they’re using more words than necessary, are they doing this in a fallacious manner, with the goal of being vague, evasive, or misleading? There are many non-fallacious reasons why someone might use more words than necessary, such as thinking while speaking or wanting to convey politeness. When asking yourself this, you should implement Hanlon’s razor, which in this case suggests that you shouldn’t attribute the use of circumlocution to negative intentions, as long as there’s a reasonable alternative explanation.
- If they’re using more words than necessary in a fallacious manner, is there a valid reason for them to do so? Note that the validity of using circumlocution is subjective, and depends on the circumstances. For example, if you ask a friend a question about their finances and they use circumlocution to avoid answering, you might feel that this is reasonable if you’re just having a general conversation, but not if they’re asking you to invest money in a business venture. In addition, when considering this, it can sometimes be beneficial to ask the other person to explain their behavior, so you can understand why it’s happening.
Once you’ve identified the use of circumlocution and understood its causes, you can choose how to respond to it.
If the circumlocution is non-fallacious or if it’s fallacious but for a valid reason, you can help the other person resolve the issue that’s causing them to use circumlocution, or you can choose to simply do nothing at all. For example, if someone is using circumlocution because they’re thinking out loud while speaking, you might want to simply remain quiet. Alternatively, if you see that someone constantly uses circumlocution in their writing, which makes it difficult to read, you might want to comment on the issue, and help them revise their writing accordingly.
If the circumlocution is fallacious and occurs for no valid reason, you can respond with any combination of the following:
- Call out the use of circumlocution. When doing this, explain what the person using the circumlocution is doing, and why it’s a problem. For example, you can demonstrate that the person has been talking for a while and saying a lot of things, but that nothing they’ve said is concrete or answers the question they were asked.
- Resolve the issue, without explicitly calling out the use of circumlocution. This involves trying to get the person to stop engaging in circumlocution, without directly calling out their problematic behavior. For example, if someone keeps circling around an issue instead of answering your question, you can say “I understand, but you still haven’t answered my main question, which is…”.
- Take their behavior into account but say nothing. This involves simply noticing that the person in question used circumlocution, and taking this into account when assessing their character and the situation at hand, without doing anything else about it at the moment.
Which approach is preferable depends on various factors, such as your goals. For example, if you just want to know how trustworthy someone is, you might simply take note of their use of circumlocution during a conversation, but say nothing about it. Conversely, if you want to demonstrate to others that a certain person is being deceitful, you might want to actively call out their use of circumlocution.
Overall, to deal with circumlocution, you should first determine whether the person in question is using more words than necessary, in a fallacious manner, for no valid reason. Then, depending on how and why a person is using circumlocution, you can either help them resolve the issue that’s causing it, ignore this behavior entirely, call out this behavior directly, resolve the issue without explicitly calling out this behavior, or take this behavior into account but say nothing.
The use of circumlocution with other rhetorical techniques
When circumlocution is used in a fallacious manner, it’s often combined with other logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques.
For example, circumlocution is often used in conjunction with equivocation, which is the deliberate use of vague or ambiguous language, with the intent of deceiving others or avoiding commitment to a specific stance.
Similarly, circumlocution is often combined with a Gish gallop, which is a rhetorical technique that involves overwhelming your opponent with as many arguments as possible, with no regard for the relevance, validity, or accuracy of those arguments.
When responding to circumlocution that’s combined with other rhetorical techniques, you will generally need to also address those techniques too. For example, if someone combines circumlocution with a Gish gallop, you might need to point out both in order to fully refute the opposing argument.
How to avoid circumlocution
Though there are some situations where circumlocution can be reasonable, such as when it’s used to convey politeness, there are also situations where it’s problematic, such as when it makes it hard for others to understand what you’re trying to say.
To avoid problematic use of circumlocution, there are several things that you can do:
- Take time to think before you start communicating.
- Think of ways to use more concise wording, either before you’ve said something or after it.
- Learn new words and forms of phrasing that allow you to express yourself more concisely.
Different techniques will work better depending on various factors, such as the specific way in which you engage in circumlocution and your reason for doing so. For example, if you tend to use circumlocution because you rush into answering questions without thinking first, then forcing yourself to take a few seconds before responding may be the most effective way for you to avoid circumlocution.
Note that these techniques can help reduce circumlocution in both speaking and writing. However, many of them are easier to implement in the case of writing, since you can generally take more time to figure out how to phrase what you want to say, and since it generally makes it easier to go over and revise your statement.
Finally, note that if you realize that you’ve engaged in circumlocution, you can clarify important points that you think might have been unclear because of it.
Overall, to avoid circumlocution, you can take time to think before you communicate, think of ways to use more concise wording, and learn new words and forms of phrasing that allow you to express yourself concisely. Different techniques will work better for you depending on factors such as how and why you engage in circumlocution.
There are some concepts that are closely related to circumlocution. These include, most notably:
- Periphrasis. In the context of discourse, periphrasis is the act of using a certain expression in place of a shorter one (that’s often a name). For example, periphrasis can involve saying “the Evening Star” instead of “Venus”. In addition, in the context of rhetoric, the terms “circumlocution” and “periphrasis” are sometimes used interchangeably. Finally, in the context of grammar, periphrasis refers to the use of separate words to express a grammatical relationship that can be expressed by a single word (e.g. saying “more good” instead of “better”).
- Ambage. Ambage is an archaic term that was used to refer to ambiguity and circumlocution. In addition, the figure of ambage is an archaic term that was sometimes used to refer to circumlocution in particular.
- Tautology. In the context of discourse, a tautology involves saying something twice using different words, generally unnecessarily. For example, the statement “you need to do this again and repeat it” is a tautology.
- Euphemism. A euphemism is a relatively mild word or phrase that’s used in place of a term that’s considered unpleasant or embarrassing. For example, “downsizing” is often used as a euphemism for “firing people”.
- Innuendo. An innuendo is a statement that hints at something—often suggestive or offensive—without mentioning it directly.
- Verbosity. Verbosity (also known as wordiness) is the general tendency to use more words than necessary.
- Grandiloquence. In the context of rhetoric, grandiloquence is the practice of using complicated or pompous language, in order to make something seem important than it is.
- Sesquipedalianism. In the context of rhetoric, sesquipedalianism is the practice of using long and often obscure words, especially unnecessarily.
The etymology of circumlocution
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “circumlocution” is derived from the French circonlocution, or from the Latin circumlocūtiōn-em, itself based on the prefix circum (“around, round about”) and the verb loqui (“to speak”).
In addition, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term “circumlocution” first appeared in written English in a work published circa 1518, though its exact publication date is uncertain:
“Whan thou must in speche, touche..Such matters vnclenly, vse circumlocucion.”
— From “Here begynneth a ryght frutefull treatyse, intituled the myrrour of good maners”, by Dominicus Mancinus (translated by Alexander Barclay)
The earliest use of the term “circumlocution” in a work whose date of publication is certain appeared in 1530:
“Where we use circumlocution, the frenchemen have one onely worde.”
— From “Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse”, by John Palsgrave
In addition, a notable historical use of “circumlocution” appeared in Charles Dickens’s 1857 novel “Little Dorrit”, which features the Circumlocution Office, an example of inefficient governmental bureaucracy:
“The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.
This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.”
Furthermore, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “circumlocution” is now used primarily in the rhetorical sense, whereas initially it was also used to refer to the concept of grammatical periphrasis. The use of the term in this sense is reflected in various quotes, such as the following:
“Circumlocution is another characteristic of verbosity. It means a roundabout mode of speech, where, instead of a direct statement of meaning, the words are multiplied to an unnecessary extent…
It is characterized by the tedious accumulation of unnecessary explanations or unmeaning definitions; by an excessive use of epithets; and in general by an imposing array of words which circle about the subject without tending to any definite conclusion.”
— From “The Elements of Rhetoric” by James De Mille (1878)
Finally, note that some sources claim that the word “circumlocution” can be traced back to the 15th century. This appears to be an erroneous claim, the source of which is likely the “circumlocution” entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which claims that “Since the 15th century, English writers have used ‘circumlocution’ with disdain, naming a thing to stop, or better yet, to avoid altogether”, but which also states that the first known use of the term appeared circa 1518, which is in line with the date specified in the Oxford English Dictionary. As such, this error seems to be due to mistakenly treating the year 1518 as part of the 15th century, rather than the 16th.
Summary and conclusions
- Circumlocution is the act of saying something using more words than necessary, often with the intent of being vague, evasive, or misleading.
- For example, a politician might use circumlocution by giving a long and vague response to a question, in order to make it difficult for people to notice that the politician didn’t actually answer the question.
- To deal with circumlocution, you should first determine whether the person in question is using more words than necessary, in a fallacious manner, for no valid reason, while keeping in mind that it’s sometimes reasonable to use extra words, such as when conveying politeness.
- Depending on how and why a person is using circumlocution, you can either help them resolve the issue that’s causing it, ignore this behavior entirely, call out this behavior directly, resolve the issue without explicitly calling out this behavior, or take this behavior into account but say nothing.
- To avoid circumlocution, you can take time to think before you communicate, think of ways to use more concise wording, and learn new words and forms of phrasing that allow you to express yourself concisely.