Circumlocution: Definition and Literary Uses

Right now, I’m reading Tim O’Brien’s Tomcat In Love, which, in a nutshell, is about a middle-aged linguistics professor in Minnesota who is trying to win his ex-wife back by sabotaging her new marriage. He’s also quite possibly a crazy person, judging from the ninety or so pages that I’ve read so far.

circumlocution

Photo by David Goehring (Creative Commons)

One thing I’ve noticed about the first-person narration: the titular tomcat is definitely a fan of words. He strings them together in ridiculous volumes, weaving in and out of images and flashbacks. Another character asks him what he did to make his wife leave him. His response? He tells a long-winded story about how, as children, he and his ex-wife and her brother tried to retrieve a live rat that was intended for dinner for a pet snake, and unintentionally killed a family cat in the process. This somehow is supposed to relate back to the narrator’s problems trusting people. It’s intentionally written so that the reader can see his thought process while also relating to the other character’s frustration with the lack of a straight answer.

This type of prose, where an author uses insanely long, convoluted sentences to convey a thought that could have been presently much more efficiently, is called circumlocution.

What Is Circumlocution?

Circumlocution is an effective technique for confusing either the reader or characters within the story. Circumlocution is especially useful when a character or narrator wants to be ambiguous or evasive.

The long-winded prose is often indicative of an unreliable narrator who is hiding something from the reader, or in the case of third-person narratives, is hiding something from the other characters to be revealed later in the story.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Circumlocution

A word of caution: circumlocution should not be used all the time. Much as with any literary device, there is benefit to moderation in your prose. If every other line is made up of roundabout statements, your readers can quickly tire of the technique, and it may be seen as gimmicky. In more critical circles, it can also be indicative that you as a writer are trying to hide the fact that your story isn’t compelling by throwing more words into the prose.

Brevity is the soul of wit, as the phrase goes, but moderate circumlocution, when executed well, can add another layer to a mystery, or a level of absurdity to a character.

What is an example of circumlocution in a story you’ve read? Have you ever used circumlocution in your storytelling? 

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write a scene between two characters from your work in progress in which the two of them are discussing plans for the first nice spring day. Post your practice in the comments, and check out the work of your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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