The Definition and Usage of Circumlocution

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Circumlocution is the use of unnecessarily wordy and indirect language to avoid getting to the point.

Though circumlocution is usually regarded as a stylistic vice in contemporary prose, it can be used for comic effect, as in the passage below by S. J. Perelman.

Examples and Observations

  • Monty Python's Man Who Says Things in a Roundabout Way
    Interviewer: Good evening. Well, we have in the studio tonight a man who says things in a very roundabout way. Isn't that so, Mr. Pudifoot?
    Mr. Pudifoot: Yes.
    Interviewer: Have you always said things in a very roundabout way?
    Mr. Pudifoot: Yes.
    Interviewer: Well, I can't help noticing that, for someone who claims to say things in a very roundabout way, your last two answers have had very little of the discursive quality about them.
    Mr. Pudifoot: Oh, well, I'm not very talkative today. It's a form of defensive response to intense interrogative stimuli. I used to get it badly when I was a boy—well, when I say "very badly," in fact, do you remember when there was that fashion for, you know, little poodles with small coats.
    Interviewer: Ah, now you're beginning to talk in a roundabout way.
    Mr. Pudifoot: Oh, I'm sorry.
    Interviewer: No, no, no, no. Please do carry on because that is in fact why we wanted you on the show.
    Mr. Pudifoot: I thought it was because you were interested in me as a human being. (gets up and leaves)
    (Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, "Royal Episode 13: The Toad Elevating Moment." Monty Python's Flying Circus, Dec. 22, 1970)
  • Fed-Speak: The Circumlocutory Federal Reserve Chairman
    - "[Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan went on to suggest raising the retirement age, though he slipped it in using his customary circumlocution: 'Another possible adjustment relates to the age at which Social Security and Medicare benefits will be provided. Under current law, and even with the so-called normal retirement age for Social Security slated to move up to 67 over the next two decades, the ratio of the number of years that the typical worker will spend in retirement to the number of years he or she works will rise in the long term.' In other words people are just living too long."
    (Dan Ackman, "The Passion Of The Fed Chairman." Forbes, Feb. 26, 2004)
    - "As Fed chairman, every time I expressed a view, I added or subtracted 10 basis points from the credit market. That was not helpful. But I nonetheless had to testify before Congress. On questions that were too market-sensitive to answer, 'no comment' was indeed an answer. And so you construct what we used to call Fed-speak. I would hypothetically think of a little plate in front of my eyes, which was the Washington Post, the following morning’s headline, and I would catch myself in the middle of a sentence. Then, instead of just stopping, I would continue on resolving the sentence in some obscure way which made it incomprehensible. But nobody was quite sure I wasn’t saying something profound when I wasn’t. And that became the so-called Fed-speak which I became an expert on over the years. It’s a self-protection mechanism when you’re in an environment where people are shooting questions at you, and you’ve got to be very careful about the nuances of what you’re going to say and what you don’t say."
    (Alan Greenspan, quoted by Devin Leonard and Peter Coy. Bloomberg Businessweek, August 13-26, 2012)
  • The Circumlocution Office
    "No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. 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."
    (Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1856)
  • Perelman's Prose
    "In two shakes of a lamb's tail—the official signal for aircraft to land in Palm Springs—the plane had landed and a flourish of trumpets greeted its three passengers, two of whom were familiar to any bystander. They were the renowned vedette Elizabeth Taylor and her producer husband, Mike Todd. The third, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Apollo Belvedere but could not be said, in all justice, to rank with him in intellect, was the present writer. His chief distinction—if one may borrow G.K. Chesterton's facility with paradox for a moment—was that he possessed no distinction whatsoever. What startling conjunction of the planets, what mysterious and inexplicable forces of the I Ching had mingled the destiny of this utter cipher with that of these eminent face cards?"
    (S. J. Perelman, "The Hindsight Saga." The Last Laugh, 1981)
  • Iranian Circumlocutions
    "Mr. Ahmadinejad's habit of answering every question about Iranian policy with a question about American policy was clearly wearing on some of the members, but at the end they acknowledged that he was about as skillful an interlocutor as they had ever encountered. 'He is a master of counterpunch, deception, circumlocution,' Mr. Scowcroft said, shaking his head. Mr. Blackwill emerged from the conversation wondering how the United States would ever be able to negotiate with this Iranian government."
    (David Sanger, "Iran's Leader Relishes 2nd Chance to Make Waves." The New York Times, Sep. 21, 2006)
  • Circumlocution as a First Step
    "We often take circumlocution as evasion, it needn't be. It might be a first step, a first form, triangulation: talk around something long enough and you can divine its center. Circumlocution. Perigraphs. I am going somewhere."
    (Kevin McFadden, Hardscrabble. University of Georgia Press, 2008)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Usage of Circumlocution." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, January 29). The Definition and Usage of Circumlocution. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Usage of Circumlocution." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).