periphrasis (prose style)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An example of periphrasis. (See Examples and Observations below.).

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In rhetoric and prose style, periphrasis is a roundabout way of saying something: the use of an unnecessarily lengthy expression in place of one that's more direct and concise. Periphrasis is a type of verbosity.

Periphrasis (or circumlocution) is commonly considered a stylistic vice. Adjective: periphrastic.

From the Greek, "talking around"


  • "NBC Sunday Night Football. Two groups of stalwart men will compete for the possession—and conveyance—of a midsize leather ovoid!"
    ("What to Watch." Entertainment Weekly, September 6, 2013)
  • The Elongated Yellow Fruit
    "On the late Boston Transcript, a feature writer, with a fondness for using three words where one would do, once referred to bananas as 'elongated yellow fruit.' This periphrasis so fascinated Charles W. Morton . . . that he began collecting examples of 'Elongated Yellow Fruit' writing. Samples:
    "In the New York Herald Tribune a beaver was almost incognito as 'the furry, paddle-tailed mammal.'
    "The Denver Post elongated 'mustache' into 'under-nose hair crops.'
    "To the Associated Press, Florida tangerines were 'that zipper-skinned fruit.'
    "In the Lincoln [Neb.] Sunday Journal-Star a cow did not give milk; 'the vitamin-laden liquid' came from a 'bovine milk factory.' . . .
    "The Boston American's ski columnist could not decide whether to call snow 'the elusive white subtance' or 'the heavenly tapioca.' And in Travel magazine, skiers slid down the slopes on 'the beatified barrel staves.'"
    ("Elongated Fruit." Time, Aug. 10, 1953)

Periphrasis in Euphemisms and the Grand Style

"Periphrasis occurs when a single word is replaced by several others to form a longer phrase that names the same thing: for instance, 'briny deep' for 'ocean,' or 'the manly art' for boxing. . . . It's often used in euphemisms to speak 'around,' and thus spare readers from any distasteful associations the more direct, single-word variant might trigger: 'little girl's room' for 'toilet,' or 'passed on to greener pastures' for 'died.' Writers also use periphrasis to elevate their prose, to raise it from the informality of the low and middle styles to the formality of the high one, as in the following example,

And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. (King, "I Have a Dream")

Periphrasis can also lend prose a poetic or even archaic flavor. As Katie Wales notes, periphrasis is at work in the 'kennings' of Old English poetry ('swan road' for 'sea,' or 'heath stepper' for 'deer')."
(Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010)

Fowler on the Periphrastic Style

"The periphrastic style is hardly possible on any considerable scale without much use of abstract nouns such as basis, case, character, connexion, dearth, description, duration, framework, lack, nature, reference, regard, respect. The existence of abstract nouns is a proof that abstract thought has occurred; abstract thought is a mark of the civilized man, and so it has come about that periphrasis and civilization are by many held to be inseparable. These good people feel that there is an almost indecent nakedness, a reversion to barbarism, in saying No news is good news instead of The absence of intelligence is an indication of satisfactory developments. Nevertheless, The year's penultimate month is not in truth a good way of saying November.

"Strings of nouns depending on one another and the use of compound prepositions are the most conspicuous symptoms of the periphrastic malady, and writers should be on the watch for these in their own composition."
(H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, rev. by Ernest Gowers. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1965)

Pronunciation: per-IF-fra-sis

Also Known As: circumlocution

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Nordquist, Richard. "periphrasis (prose style)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). periphrasis (prose style). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "periphrasis (prose style)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).