Circumlocutions: When Writing Tries to Take the Long Way Home

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Taking the scenic route. (Photo: Eunika Sopotnicka)

Circumlocutions are common expressions that take several words to say.

“At this point in time” is a circumlocution. It sounds fine—and that’s what usually gives it away as a circumlocution: It comes up in speech, where it’s fine to be verbose. However, in writing, less is more. Just use the word “now.”

A few more examples:

  • In light of the fact—instead, use “because.”
  • In reference to—use “about.”
  • There is the possibility—use “may,” “might,” or “could.”
  • It is necessary that—use “must” or “should.”

Inserting circumlocutions into your writing is not always a bad thing. If you are creating dialogue between characters, their exchanges will be more realistic when you have them use roundabout expressions and figures of speech.

For the most part, however, writers and copy editors expel circumlocutions in favor of concise word choices. The result is good writing that avoids passivity and rewards the reader with vigorous sentences.

Common circumlocutions and the single-word solution:

  • With the exception of—use “except.”
  • In the event of—use “if.”
  • In a timely fashion—use “quickly.”

Circumlocutions to nix completely:

  • All things considered
  • As a matter of fact
  • For all intents and purposes
  • In a very real sense

While we are on the subject of omissions, let’s talk about additional ways to tighten up writing as you are on the lookout for circumlocutions. Check for tautologies—words meaning the same things—and delete them.

“Vast majority,” “forward planning,” and “added bonus” are examples of two-word tautologies where removing the first word changes nothing—other than to make a stronger statement. If you are using tautology as a way to stress a particular word, you’ll want to spare the deletion.

More Clutter-Cutting

Once you’ve done away with any circumlocutions and tautologies, you should see more clarity in your writing. But why stop there?

Are you in the habit of using modifiers, qualifiers, or determiners where none are needed? Sometimes we think we need to modify a noun but we’re just adding clutter. Check out these skillful cuts:

  • “We need some kind of meaningful solutions.”
  • “The sort of candidate that would be best for this position is…”
  • “It’s basically just a way to solve the problem.”

Do you see clauses or phrases that can be distilled for simplicity? Look at your prepositional phrases: “Leaders with talent” performs better as “Talented leaders.” Wouldn’t you agree?

Look for relative clauses you can reword. They tend to be awkward anyway. “The recently hospitalized CEO” flows better than “The CEO who had been recently hospitalized.” You also don’t have to worry about whether the clause should be separated by a comma.

Don’t let your writing hide behind circumlocutions and their above-mentioned friends. Remove the fluff and cultivate the rich thoughts that remain.

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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