Our Blog

Are Overcomplicated Sentences Ruining Your Writing?

Photo of a mountain scene with a focus on a road sign with a very curvy arrow and a "15 MPH" speed limit posted.
Circumlocution is when your writing takes the scenic route. Long, overly complex senteces can be tedious to get through. (Photo: Eunika Sopotnicka)

Have you ever read a piece of writing that just seemed to keep going on and on … without ever reaching a point?

Perhaps you’ve read a 19th-century novel, a philosophical or theoretical text in school, a blog post that introduces a recipe, or maybe even a long-winded email.

No matter where you read it, long, overly complex writing can be tedious to get through. It’s boring, it’s hard on the eyes (especially when it’s a single block of text), and it can make it difficult to understand what the author is trying to say.

If you tend to write this way, you may be familiar with the problems that come with it. Your writing may be criticized for being “too long” or “flowery.” You may find that people have a hard time getting through your work, or they lose interest before they even finish.

Fortunately, if you struggle with making your writing concise and clear, you’re not alone. There’s even a word for the phenomenon: circumlocution.

What Is Circumlocution?

Circumlocution is defined as “the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive,” according to Oxford Languages. Essentially, it’s any time you use an indirect or roundabout expression instead of being clear and concise.

While this may take place over the course of a sentence, phrase, or even an entire paragraph or conversation, circumlocution most commonly refers to small phrases sprinkled into your writing.

Why People Use Circumlocutions

Circumlocutions can be used in several different ways and contexts.

Sometimes they’re used to avoid saying something that might be construed as offensive or taboo. Think of euphemisms like “the devil’s lettuce” or “kicking the bucket.”

They may also be used when someone is purposefully trying to evade giving a straightforward response, such as during a criminal interrogation.

Similarly, people may use circumlocution when they want to avoid directly saying something to be polite or because they feel awkward about the subject matter.

For example, someone may say:

  • “You don’t happen to have any more information about the issue we discussed yesterday, do you?”

Instead of:

  • “Have you filed the report?”

In this case, “You don’t happen to have any more information” can be replaced with “Have you filed,” while “the issue we discussed yesterday” can be replaced with “the report.” From this example, it’s easy to see how circumlocutions can be stacked to make entire sentences or paragraphs completely devoid of direct meaning.

Finally, someone may use circumlocutions simply because they forgot the common term for something or may not realize there’s a simpler way to say something. This is common for people who are learning English.

Saying something like “piece of wood to chop vegetables on” instead of “cutting board” or “place where airplanes land” instead of “airport” is an example of this type of circumlocution.

Examples of Common Circumlocutions

For most writers, circumlocutions aren’t intentional, and you may not even realize you’re using them. In fact, you may be using them even if you consider your writing to be fairly concise.

Here are examples of common circumlocutions that sneak past even the most skilled writers:

  • “At the present moment in time” vs. “Now”
  • “In light of the fact” vs. “because”
  • “In reference to” vs. “about”
  • “In the event that” vs. “If”
  • “In close proximity to” vs. “Near”
  • “There is the possibility” vs. “may,” “might,” or “could”
  • “It is necessary that” vs. “must” or “should”
  • “On a daily basis” vs. “Every day”
  • “Notwithstanding the fact that” vs. “Although”

The tricky thing about circumlocutions is that they sound fine. They may even sound more natural than their shorter counterparts.

But we only feel this way because they’re frequently used in speech, where it’s generally fine to be verbose. Writing, however, is a different story. Since it’s usually more difficult for people to read than to listen, less is more with writing—but this is easier said than done.

If you want help from the experts on how to clean up your writing and get your message across concisely, reach out to Super Copy Editors. Not only do we fix pesky grammar mistakes and other technical errors that make your writing look unprofessional, but we also smooth out flow and tone to ensure readers can understand you perfectly.

Photo of a woman in a dress holding a laptop and writing on a notepad.
Circumlocutions make it harder for a reader to understand what you’re trying to say. (Photo: StartupStockPhotos)

When and When Not to Use Circumlocutions

Circumlocutions should generally be removed from writing because they add unnecessary complexity to your sentences.

This makes it harder for a reader to understand what you’re trying to say, and it can make your writing sound dense and difficult to get through. When you remove them, the result is good writing that avoids passivity and rewards the reader with vigorous sentences.

However, like most writing rules, this isn’t set in stone.

There are certain situations where circumlocutions work. Written dialogue, for example, can be made to feel more realistic when circumlocutions are included, since people often speak using them.

Spotting and Removing Circumlocutions

While editing your own work, always do a second pass to watch out for phrases that could be said more concisely.

Some common circumlocutions and their single-word solutions include:

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

Some circumlocutions can be removed without even needing a replacement. These include:

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

Cleaning Up Clutter in the Rest of Your Writing

While we’re on the subject of omission, circumlocutions aren’t the only thing you need to clean up to make your writing more concise.

Here are a few more things to watch out for that clutter your writing.

Tautologies

Tautologies are words that mean the same thing. They’re usually used right next to each other, such as “vast majority,” “forward planning,” or “added bonus.”

In all these examples, removing the first word changes nothing about the meaning and results in a stronger statement. The only time you should keep a tautology is when you want to stress a particular word.

Modifiers, Qualifiers, and Determiners

Modifiers, qualifiers, and determiners are sometimes needed to add meaning to a noun. But usually, they simply add clutter and can be removed without hurting your writing.

Here are some skillful edits that cut unnecessary modifiers:

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

Clauses and Phrases

Do you see clauses or phrases in your writing that can be distilled for simplicity?

Make a special note of prepositional phrases: “Leaders with talent” would be much smoother and easier to read as “Talented leaders.”

Relative clauses can also frequently be reworded. “The recently hospitalized CEO” is much less awkward and clunky than “The CEO who had been recently hospitalized.”

Conclusion: Aim for Simplicity

If you’re not sure whether to keep or cut a certain word or phrase, ask yourself this: Does it add anything of value to the sentence?

If the answer is no, it’s probably best to get rid of it.

Remember: When in doubt, aim for simplicity. You’ll end up with a stronger, more engaging piece of writing that your readers will enjoy.

And if you ever want help with your writing, reach out to Super Copy Editors. With years of experience putting the polishing touches on everything from marketing copy to internal communications and technical documents, our team can help you make any piece of writing clear, concise, and compelling. Get your free quote now.

Found this helpful? Please share:

Boost Your Workday With These Tips

Get 1 ridiculously powerful writing tip or productivity hack by email, 2x per week. Perfect for marketers, agencies, and education companies. It’s free. 💪

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than 25 years 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. At Super Copy Editors, we’re passionate about helping agencies, marketing teams, and education companies refine and polish their text to give them confidence and ensure success. Learn more here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

photo of a collection of style guides and books on advertising, marketing, and education