They might suggest a topic but be unwilling to fully address it or make any direct references. Circumlocution also occurs in everyday conversations when someone finds a way to avoid a difficult subject.
Usually, circumlocution is a symptom of bad writing. For example, if a writer is trying to describe something but is unable to come up with a clear explanation for it. They might instead talk around it, perhaps sloppily, and in the end, leave the reader unsure what they wanted to say. In another example, circumlocution is used in descriptive language.
For example, if the writing is overly complex and flowery, using far more words and sentences than is necessary. But, it might also be intentional if the writer is using a particular type of narrator or is writing dialogue for a character who is trying not to talk about something.
Definition of Circumlocution
Circumlocution is a rhetorical device. It occurs when a writer is not clear enough in what they want to say. Their descriptions might be ambiguous or uncertain. Some elements of circumlocution include being unable to find the right words to say something, trying to avoid using offensive words, or, more generally, offending someone, and in poetry, creating a particular type of meter. One might also use the device if they don’t have an answer to a question. This is common in political speeches and in the law.
Examples of Circumlocution in Literature
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
‘The Rape of the Lock’ is a “mock-heroic” poem that is a popular example of high burlesque literature. It was first published in1712 and satirized a small incident by comparing it to the godly troubles. Pope based the events around a real incident. Here are a few lines that criticize the aristocracy at the heart of Pope’s satire. He uses circumlocution to talk around his criticism but still clearly alludes to it.
Which for the neighb’ring Hampton takes its name.
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,
When husbands or when lap-dogs breathe their last,
Or when rich China vessels, fall’n from high,
In glitt’ring dust and painted fragments lie!
The glittering and “high” state of Hampton Court is a clear example of sarcasm meant to reveal to the reader how corrupt a place truly is. The aristocracy is incredibly pleasure-focused, and their lives are ruled by small slights and minuscule problems.
Read more Alexander Pope poems.
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘Kubla Khan,’ also known by its full name, ‘Kubla Kahn: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment,’ is one of Coleridge’s most commonly read poems. It was published in 1816 and described an opium-fueled dream Coleridge experienced are reading about Shangdu, the capital of the Mongol Emperor (although some have posed questions about this supposed origin). Within the poem, he uses the following lines to describe the difference between the interior and exterior world of Xanadu:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The outside is wild and uncontrolled, while inside the palace, everything is peaceful. there, one can find “incense-bearing tree[s]” and “forests ancient as the hills.”
Discover more Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems.
Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne
In Donne’s poem, the speaker pleas with God to return his soul, which is liable to give in to the temptations of Satan. While this message does come through clearly, Donne uses circumlocution in his explanation of it. Here are a few lines that show his technique:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
He’s dealing with an internal conflict that never ends, but he wants desperately to be on the side of God and heaven.
Explore more John Donne poems.
How to Avoid Circumlocution
The easiest way to avoid circumlocution in writing is in the revision process. When rereading a piece of writing, consider the moments where you have used more words than are strictly necessary. Ask yourself the question, do these words add or take away from my content? Will the reader better understand what I’m trying to say because I used them? Or do they complicate things?
One of the easiest things you can do is to set your writing to the side for a period of time, a day, a week, a month, and then go back to it with fresh eyes. This will help you read your work as if it belongs to someone else and as though you’ve never seen it before. You should be able to spot the times where you’ve not addressed a topic as clearly as you could’ve.
All that being said, there are some reasons why you might want to keep circumlocution in your writing. For instance, if you want a character to purposely speak using it, if you’re trying to create mystery in dialogue or narration, or if the narrator themselves has trouble defining something. The latter might be helpful when defining how your narrator confronts conflict in their life.
Related Literary Terms
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Read: Dictionary definition of circumlocution.
- Listen: Quick Language Learning Tip—Circumlocution
- Watch: How to Improve Your Writing