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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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  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress/category/blog PJ Reece

    Wow… this is a literary technique you could grow to love or to hate in equal measure. I think circumlocution pretty much defines Virginia Woolf’s work. Consequently, I both love and hate her. On the other hand, some novels don’t go there at all, and they seem just too straightforward. I’m itching to try it myself. Writing is tough!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! Great point and good call about Virginia Woolf. I feel the same way about Faullner.

  • http://long-distance-writing.blogspot.com/ Kate Taylor

    The First Warm Spring Day

    They met in the cafeteria at lunch time almost every day.
    Kete and Dolly were partners, yet they enjoyed an independence that kept their
    relationship fresh. It was much fresher than the cafeteria however.

    “Grey, grey, grey, everything is grey these days”, Dolly
    whined, but it was true. The concrete walls of the cafeteria could at least be
    painted a more welcoming color than the rain cloud tone that they were. The
    tables were reminiscent of school lunch tables, all in one stainless steel piece
    with what appeared to have granite looking Formica surfaces.

    “This place smells of day old bacon and armpits, bleah.”

    Kete could tell that Dolly had had just about enough of
    winter and its dragging on day after gloomy day.

    “Just look at me. Chrissakes, I am even wearing this
    charcoal sweater and it looks like hell. I want to put on a sundress and go on
    a picnic. Will spring ever get here?”

    “Well, we might brighten up a bit if we plan something.
    It won’t be long. Tell me in detail; what would bring on the sunshine for you?
    Daydream a little. C’mon.”

    Dolly thought for a minute and a smile began to develop
    at the corner of her lips.

    “Remember the time that we went and sat under the
    hemlocks near the brook. I’d love to go back there.”

    “I do; the weather was perfect that day.”

    “In the old pie basket we’ll
    carry let’s see, some brie and sharp cheddar, fruit, um, grapes and pears. Wine
    too, a Pinot Grigio. It’s food that would be selected for Aphrodite.”

    “We’ll spread out the tattered quilt. We’ve had some memories on
    that at our picnics.”

    “Mmm.” Dolly closed her eyes and fondly remembered that last
    picnic when they sipped wine and kissed it into one another’s lips.

    “I’m going to pick up some wine on the way home. Will you go by
    Coll’s and pick up some grapes, pears, and cheese? I think it’s time we had a rehearsal
    picnic indoors on that quilt in front of the fire, while we wait to sit by the
    brook and under the hemlocks our first warm spring day.”

    • Eliese

      The way you used colors made me feel the characters yearning for spring. I also now want a picnic like with my husband. :)

      It might be helpful to add what kind of cafeteria they are in (college? Hospital?) At first I imagined they were in high school until they started talking about the wine.

      My favorite line was about the ‘day old armpits and bacon.’ It made me laugh.

      • http://long-distance-writing.blogspot.com/ Kate Taylor

        Oh, good thought on the cafeteria. Let’s see; it’s in a factory. That’s why the cafeteria is not so pleasant looking and smelling as a cafeteria in an office building would be. So… what are their occupations? It is a ball bearings factory. Kete works in architectural drafting and Dolly is part of the Human Resources team.

  • Eliese

    Not sure about how long this took as I was chasing after a two year old and writing at the same time, but here it is :)
    ~~~
    The sun has sprouted it’s glorious face from behind the dreary clouds for the first time in an age. I turn my head to let the rays dance on my skin for a moment, but not too long; I don’t want to be brown skinned like a peasant.

    “What are you plans for the Spring Festival Victoria? Is the Duke taking you? You are such a lucky girl. What I wouldn’t give for him to hold me in his arms as we dance amongst the flowers with everyone watching us.” Anastasia twirls in a circular motion letting her dress flow like a petal.

    By the Spring Festival arrives Duke William and I will have ended our fake engagement and I will be attending the event as a future princess with my arm wrapped around Prince Charmaine’s, but I can’t tell gossiping Anastasia any of this.

    “He has other plans.” I am a terrible liar. She scrunches her face together in disbelief. I need to think fast.

    “I am not really supposed to tell anyone this.” I whisper.

    Anastasia sits on an elegant bench by a sparkling water fountain. She looks at me like a hungry puppy waiting for a treat. Good girl.

    “Duke William had a brother.” I lie, again. Anastasia gasps. I begin my story again before she can start with her never with her never ending questions.

    “His brother Adrian was the first born and heir to everything. He was opposite Duke William in almost every way. Where Will was kind and generous, Adrian was cheap and rude. Adrian had a problem with authority while William was friends with Crown Prince Charmaine. This caused a rivalry between the siblings.”

    Anastasia’s mouth hangs open in a unladylike manner.

    “Will was ten when it happened. He was playing a rowdy boy’s game with the Prince outside on a warm day much like today. The brothers were not talking with each other after a large argument, so when Will saw Adrian walking towards them he didn’t know what to think. Will was pleasantly surprised when Adrian said he wanted to join in the game, thinking this meant their would be a truce. He was wrong. The Prince was running to score a point when Adrian cut out in front of him and pretended to hit the ball but instead kicked the Prince. The Prince fell to the grass with his leg pointed at an odd angle.”

    “That’s how the Prince broke his leg.” Anastasia exclaims.

    “Yes.” I answer. “Adrian was banished from the country to live in a school for boys and to never be spoke of again.The only time is family can see him is on the day of Spring Festival.” I get off the bench and wipe away a non existent tear.

    “You poor dear.” She says as she follows me to a dress shop.

    She bought it. I am getting better at lying. I smile when she’s not looking.

    • TheCody

      I like this piece. Saying “Good girl,” after mentioning Anastasia being a hungry puppy actually made me think, “ooooohhhhh” LOL :)

      The circumlocution story was also really interesting. I was actually invested in it even though I knew she was lying :)

      If I had any feedback it would be that she says she’s a terrible liar, then immediately spins this amazing tale right afterwards. It’s like she went from amateur to professional status in the blink of an eye. So either it seems a bit unrealistic, or she’s a character who often sells herself short. If it’s the latter, then that’s quite nice.

      • Eliese

        Thank you for the great feedback. It was helpful, and I am glad you caught the good girl part :P

        • Eliese

          I don’t know why this posted twice :/

      • Eliese

        Thanks for the great feedback. I wish I could say that it was the latter, but sadly, it was a mistake. One that I have now edited in my personal document. :)

        I am happy you caught the good girl line :D

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • TheCody

    Walking into her new friend’s house for the first time, Chloe was immediately ushered into a loveseat nestled in the bright living room. Already, she was wary. Alison, her host, was holding a little Pekinese dog like it was a baby. She even rocked it back and forth, making Chloe seasick.

    “Who’s that?” Chloe asked. She didn’t really want to pry, but felt it was the polite thing to do. Just asking the question her made her afraid, though, because she knew where this little back and forth would end up.

    “This is Mitzy.”

    “He’s cute,” said Chloe. She made sure not to look at the dog when she said it.

    “Thank you. SHE loves to be held,” said Allison, gesturing to a pink bow wrapped around the dog’s neck.

    Chloe saw the bow, but purposely said “he”. She was trying to convey she wasn’t really interested. Like most crazy dog lovers, her friend didn’t get it, and added, “Yep, she especially loves when new guests hold her. It calms her down.”

    There it was. In the matter of seconds, Chloe had already lost the game. Without another word, Alison walked over and held the dog out.

    “May I?”

    Like I can say no, Chloe thought. She couldn’t bring herself to say, “Yes,” though, and acquiesced by taking her hands off her lap. The second Mitzy was on her, the dog started exploring and licking and nudging for affection.

    Chloe tried laying a feeble hand on the dog but found herself pulling away.

    After five agonizing minutes, Alison finally said, “Do you hate dogs or something?”

    Chloe shook her head. “I’m just not used to them, so I’m a little uncomfortable.”

    Normally that would have been enough, and any normal person would have lifted the dog away. Instead, Allison started grilling her. She asked why Chloe didn’t have a dog, why she was uncomfortable with dogs, if she thought Mitzy would bite her, and assured Chloe the dog was perfectly safe.

    She wouldn’t let it go.

    Finally, Chloe couldn’t take it anymore, and physically pushed the dog off her lap. “I don’t want one, OK!” she snapped.

    If there’s one thing dog lovers can’t fathom, it’s another person not liking dogs. To them, dog haters are evil, and Allison was already pulling away.

    Before it got any worse, Chloe said. “Look, I don’t hate dogs.”

    Alison looked unconvinced so Chloe was forced to say, “I just had an incident when I was a kid.”

    “An incident?”

    Chloe hated this story. But the way Alison was looking at her – like she just might be the devil – Chloe didn’t want to be judged, and said, “When I was little, my brother and I were obsessed with animals. Anything we could find. Even grasshoppers.”

    Alison made a face – because it’s OK to love dogs but hate everything else – while Chloe continued, “One day, we found a ground squirrel. Usually they’re scared and burrowed, but this one was running around. It was really cute and we wanted it.”

    Without quite looking at Allison, Chloe folder her arms across her chest. “We each got on one side of it, and began walking toward each other. The ground squirrel tried to run away, but we had it surrounded. Thrilled at the thought of a pet ground squirrel, I stepped towards it. It tried running under my shoe. Without thinking, I slammed my foot down to stop it, and ended up stepping on his head.”

    At that, Alison covered her mouth. Everyone who heard this story covered her mouth. Chloe could have stopped there, but if Alison had pushed her this far, she was going to hear the rest.

    “I heard a crunching noise, and when I lifted my foot, its brains were gushing out its head. It wiggled for awhile, then died.”

    Grimacing, Alison reached forward, plucked up Mitzy, and put her in her lap.

    • Eliese

      This was an interesting perspective from a person uncomfortable around dogs. I enjoyed how she wasn’t a dog hater, but didn’t enjoy them (or the owners much.) The circumlocution with the story at the end was well done and interesting to read.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. I was definitely not expecting that. Great twist Cody. This character is much weirder than I thought.

      The only suggestion I have is to use less inner monologue, which will make the scene tighter and even more surprising. Here I feel like your taking some shortcuts by explaining so much through her self-talk.

      Great practice. Is this part of a larger story? It works well on its own but I could see it in a novel as well!

  • http://www.adelaidewritewritewrite.blogspot.com/ Adelaide Shaw

    “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Stern comes to my mind as a comic example of circumlocution.

    Here is my attempt:

    That morning in July began like any other morning. I wasn’t expecting the news I received from my brother-in-law. I was expecting my sister to call because once a week one of us calls the other, and this week was her turn to call me. Actually, last week was her turn, but when she hadn’t called by Thursday–we always spoke on a Tuesday in the morning before noon–I decided I had better call her in case she was too sick to call, although I thought that her husband would have had the courtesy to call me if Gert were too sick to call. So, after I called her on Thursday, we agreed she would call me on Tuesday.
    Well, now Harry was calling, not Gert and that surprised me no end. When Lloyd, my husband, called me to say that Harry was calling from California for me I really thought that this time Gert was sick. But, she wasn’t sick. That was the big surprise, the big news that made me sit down after I heard it because if I hadn’t sat down I would have fallen down. Gert had left him. Taken the two kids and skipped.

    • TheCody

      I liked this. You wove the circumlocution into the story so well. It really seemed effortless to me.

      This actually makes me mad at the sister. They talked every week and the main character didn’t even know Gert was leaving? Bad sister!

      • http://www.adelaidewritewritewrite.blogspot.com/ Adelaide Shaw

        Thank you for your comments. I agree. Bad sister!

  • C.T.H.

    It’s around 10 o’ clock at night and he thumbs through his pocket for his California ID. He drunkenly drops a mass of wadded up 20′s in the process of pulling it out. He stumbles picks it up, turns toward the bar girl and gives her his signature joking sneer. She smiles which is more than he usually gets when he’s this drunk and this gives him some much needed confidence. He moves into the dark bar. It’s full of life but he doesn’t see it as such, he sees sad worn out faces, drinks being poured down throats by people that are beaten down, tired, at a breaking point but not yet at the point of actually breaking. He moves toward the bartender bumping into the numerous girls crowded around the bar.

    “whiskey neat”

    he takes a large drink without looking around and swallows the entire double without a wince.

    “how do you drink that stuff like that? I always hold my nose and make the goofiest face after.” he hears a dainty cute voice say over the roar

    He looks over and sees a thin beautiful face staring up at him with pale blue eyes that reminded him of his time living in huntington beach.

    “I’m sure you could learn all my smooth alcoholic skills if you dated me.” he responded quickly

    “is that an invitation?” she asked with a smile and a sideways twist that made him smile

    “its a threat.”

    He grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the bar away from the noise and crowd. They settled in the back on an old table covered in beer bottles and cigarette butts.

    “So tiger, if you’re going to date me where’s our first date going to be?” she asked

    His drunken mind began to think. This girl was beautiful, he needed to actually treat this one different, he couldn’t just throw her around like the whores he’s dated lately, he took a drink of her beer and lost eye contact as his eyes trailed across the table. He needed to treat her like his ex, he had always had the best time with her, his mind piecing together the last date they went on as a couple. It was the first day of spring, he drove out to a bluff near his house, you could hear the beach from the overhang they sat on, the california poppies were in full bloom all around him, he was happy, but he was also drunk, his feet beating against the concrete and throwing him off balance, but he could tell the feelings of utter joy were not mutual, he had just been scolded for driving drunk, and then for drinking as he drove, it was just a small joking sip, but the joking wasn’t helping, nothing was helping.

    “How about you take me home tonight and when we wake up tomorrow morning we’ll figure it out?” she declared

    “I don’t know if that will work…. I don’t know if THIS will work.” he said still looking around the table

    “what are you talking about?” she was confused but was still absolutely beautiful

    “I need to get out of here.”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Nice circumlocution! This was very unusual in a good way. Your character is great. Very jaded and yet sympathetic somehow. I’m not sure I buy the blonde, but that could be because I have a hard time believing people that shallow actually exist. I guess they do though. I might believe her if she insulted him instead of went all gooey eyed.

      • C.T.H.

        I appreciate it, it means a lot coming from you. I agree with you, re-reading it now I would definitely change the exchange on the girl’s side, with her throwing herself at him in the beginning and completely retracting as soon as she sensed hesitation or the possibility of being turned down, it would make the story honest.

  • Chloee

    I stared out the windows at the dark sky gloomily. The rain came down in a quick and furious pattern like soilders marching. My friend Alex plopped down on the couch next to me combing his curly brown hair out of his hazel eyes.

    “What should we do when it’s nice out?” I looked at him. “I don’t know.” I brushed my red hair out of my eyes. “We should go to the pond out in the woods.” I gulped. “No.” “What?” “We’re not going to the pond.” “Why?”

    “I have a fear of water.”I lied. “CJ you don’t have a fear of swimming you swim in the pool all the time.” “Leave me alone!” “Not till you tell me what’s up.” “No!” “Come on.” “I said no okay?” “Tell me.” I could tell this was gonna go on forever. “Okay you want to know why!”

    I thought back to the spring day it happened telling him. The sky was a clear blue without a cloud in sight. There was a cool breeze and the trees rustled. The grass was finally green and not dead and lifeless. Me and my sister Roxanne raced to the pond me being ten and her being six I won. “Come on CJ the waters great.” She smiled at me. Her long chocolate brown hair dripped with the water of the pond as her big hazel eyes looked at me. “Okay.” I jumped in splashing water all over her. She giggled. “CJ stop it.” We played till the sunset in the sky casting shadows that toyed with my imagination. “Come on rocky let’s go home.” “Hold on I want to play still.” She jumped back into the pool but instead of hitting the water she fell on the rock that was hidden by it she slumped in the water blood gushing from her head.

    “Rocky get up.” I screamed. I jumped in and pulled her out and tried to get her to wake up but she wouldn’t I called a ambulance but she was already gone. I finished telling Alex and looked at him as I pushed back tears. “I’m so sorry.” He said wiping tears from his eyes. “Leave me alone.”

  • Brianna Worlds

    “So,” said Zhia moodily, “I guess we’re legging it.”
    Nikko grinned. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me!” he said with enthusiasm. “It’s beautiful out.”
    He was right, for once. It was sunny out, and the clouds that had scarred the sky for the past several weeks had cleared. “Do you have any sunscreen though? Gingers burn easily.”
    “Why,” Zhia asked in exasperation, “would I have sunscreen?”
    Nikko shrugged. “Because you’re Zhia.”
    “Is that a compliment?”
    “I thought so.”
    “I have sunscreen,” Lytia said. Nikko turned towards her, surprised. Lytia’s young face was emotionless as she handed Nikko the bottle of 60 SPF.
    “Wow, thanks!” Nikko said, pouring some into his hand. “Why do you have sunscreen? I didn’t think people as dark as you burned.”
    “I don’t,” Lytia said. “But I figured I should grab some at the pharmacy the other day. I had a friend who had red hair once, and I thought you might need it.”
    Nikko looked dumbstruck, and Zhia found herself surprised. It wouldn’t have occurred to her that cynical, quiet Lytia could be so thoughtful. Zhia supposed she should have known not to judge her, especially having only known her for slightly more than a day.
    “We should get going,” Zhia said. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we make it out of the city, and I’d rather that happened sooner rather than later. I can’t keep up this illusion forever.”
    Lytia nodded, and Nikko did the same, albeit much more vigorously. On their way down the street, which was still fairly empty in the early morning, with only a couple early-risers puttering around, Nikko spotted a music store. Zhia saw the longing that bloomed on his face, the aching need for music.
    “Can we please go in?” he pleaded, and it pained Zhia to shake her head.
    “No. We can’t afford that much time. It won’t be long before the Corporation finds out that we’re no longer on their side and comes looking for us. We need to be far away by the time that happens,” Zhia said. “I’m sorry. I know you miss the music.”
    “I can’t believe what the Corporation has done,” Lytia muttered vehemently, her tone far more knowing than that of a ten year old had any right to be. “I know humans are a despicable species, but this is low, even for them.”
    Zhia felt sick as she remembered the images, the twisted children, stillborn, or screaming in pain at how deformed they were. The cold reports, the experiments that had wreaked havoc in the lives of many. “I know,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
    “What happened to you that made you hate humans so much?” Nikko mused. “We’re not all that bad.”
    Lytia’s eyes flashed dangerously, a mixture of fear and fury. “Who says anything happened to me? Humans are destructive and selfish beings, or spite and arrogance and greed. That is plain to see by anyone. Nothing happened to me. Nothing.”
    “That’s not very convincing,” Nikko said, frowning. “You had to repeat that nothing happened to you three times.”
    “Leave her alone, Nikko,” Zhia said with a sigh. It was Lytia’s business, whatever happened in her past that had scarred her so. It was not Nikko nor Zhia’s place to pry.

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