Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

English Fluency Tip: Use Circumlocution

Circum = around + locutionem = a speaking
To express in a roundabout way.

Do you want to be fluent in English? Do you struggle to find the words to express yourself? Many of my students want to be fluent in English, but they struggle to speak.

The tip below will help if you already know between 800 and 1,000 of the most frequently used vocabulary words in English (access the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language by visiting The Secrets to Increasing Your Vocabulary)

What Is Circumlocution?

Circumlocution is a way to describe a word when you do not know it or can’t remember it. You can use circumlocution during a conversation. You do this by using other words to explain the word you do not know.

For example, if I do not know the word pillow, I could say it is something soft that you put your head on when you are sleeping. If I have less vocabulary, I could say sleep, head plus gestures. I can’t tell you how much I wish more language learners would do this to help build their vocabulary in a natural, communicative, and interactive way.

Circumlocution is an excellent skill to develop and can lead to improved speaking skills and increased confidence. You can erase your worries about not knowing certain words if you can master this skill. Use the words you know. You’ll be speaking more in no time!

Tips for Increased Fluency

  • Use vocabulary that you already know
  • Try to think of another way to convey the message
  • Describe the concept
  • Explain who uses it, why it’s used, or where it’s used (teacher, writing, classroom = dry erase marker/chalk)
  • Use a synonym (similar word)
  • Use an antonym (opposite word)
  • Use a more general category word (fruit, clothing, etc)
  • Explain what it is not
  • Point and use gestures, actions, and sounds
  • If you have paper, you can draw

5 Useful Expressions When Using Circumlocution

  1. What’s another word for ______________?
  2. What do you call….?
  3. It’s a type/kind of ___________that is used for _____________.
  4. It’s the opposite of _______________________.
  5. It’s similar to __________________________.

Examples of Circumlocution

Can you guess the words?

  1. water from the sky = _________________
  2. the place where we can send a letter or a package to someone = ___________
  3. foot finger = ________
  4. a person who works in a store and takes your money when you pay = _________
  5. the machine at a bank that gives you money = _____________

Check your answers here.


Try to use circumlocution to explain the words below.

  1. stomach
  2. stapler
  3. eyelashes
  4. eyebrows
  5. clown
  6. bridge

After thinking of ways to explain these words, you can check examples of circumlocution for the words here.

Answers to #1-5

  1. rain
  2. post office
  3. toe
  4. cashier
  5. ATM (automated teller machine)

Examples from the practice above

  1. the place food goes after you eat it = stomach
  2. an office supply used to attach papers to each other = stapler
  3. hair around your eyes = eyelashes
  4. hair above your eyes = eyebrows
  5. the Joker / a person you see at a circus or who entertains children at parties = clown
  6. something over water that connects land – cars or people can cross it = bridge

If you found this helpful, share it with a friend!

For more tips, including circumlocution (#7 on her list includes another example for you), check out my affiliate Espresso English’s blog post How to Speak Fluent English: Top 10 Tips.

Never stop learning!