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What Is Periphrasis?

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  • Written By: M. Glass
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2016
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Periphrasis, also called circumlocution, is the substitution of a descriptive phrase for a noun or verb. In writing it may be used deliberately for effect, or it may signify inexperience with either writing or with the subject matter. In spoken language, frequent use of periphrasis suggests difficulty in finding a word or it may result from a social attempt to soften a message. Having trouble finding words may be a sign of a developmental problem, or it may signify underlying neurological damage.

The use of periphrasis in writing and discourse results in long, descriptive passages. Authors will sometimes choose to use an elaborate phrase in place of a single word to set a tone or emphasize a subtle aspect of a word's meaning. For example, an author might choose to write "the last fading rays of warmth slipped behind the mountain" rather than "the sun set" for effect in a work of fiction. The same phrase in a scientific paper on the sun would be poorly received. Similarly, periphrasis can be used to soften or politicize a message, such as "many people were encouraged to find more satisfying employment" instead of "many people were fired."

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Academic and professional writing typically seeks to avoid periphrasis in favor of a more concise, clear style. Elaborate phrasing in these contexts suggests a lack of vocabulary or a lack of mastery over the subject matter. In American English, concise writing is considered the more authoritative form. Phrases such as "in the nature of" or "such that" often mark places where writing can be simplified. Conversely, writing that is too concise can appear cold and dry.

In spoken language, frequent use of periphrasis often signifies problems with finding words, or remembering the desired word at the moment of speaking. This may be a normal function of aging, but it can also occur in conjunction with a stroke, brain injury or in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. When used to compensate for genuine word-finding problems, periphrasis may be essential to the speaker's ability to communicate. Frequent or increasing instances of struggling to find a word should be discussed with the speaker's doctor, as they may be among the first symptoms of a neurological disease or disorder.

Developmentally, periphrasis is normal in early language development. Very young children do not have the vocabulary to label everything, so phrase substitutions are a common strategy. "The place with nuggets," for example, is a typical way for a two-year-old to ask for a favorite restaurant. Similarly, second language learners may resort to descriptive phrases when they lack the needed vocabulary to communicate effectively.

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