The word “circumscribe” has Latin roots that mean “written around.”

To circumscribe something is to encircle it, to draw a circle around it, or, more figuratively, to limit it in a narrow way, as if you’re drawing a tight, strict circle around it.


Part of speech:
Verb, the transitive kind: “they circumscribed the property,” “his rigorous schedule circumscribes his life.”

Other forms worth knowing:
circumscribed, circumscribing, circumscription, circumscriber(s)

How to use it:
This word is formal, with a negative tone.

Anything that puts limits on something, as if by drawing a tight circle around it, has the power to circumscribe.

So, talk about people, actions, words, and events that circumscribe things. More specifically, you might talk about rules, laws, precedents, expectations, traditions, decisions, commands, and requests that circumscribe things.

And what things get circumscribed? Spaces, settings, and timelines; choices and control; roles, powers, and authority; actions and activities; methods and strategies; skills and abilities; thoughts and speech; discussions and conversations; desires and intentions; ambitions and goals; and lives and lifestyles.

“Like most Southern California natives, Randy Randall’s childhood memories are inextricable from the freeways that circumscribed it.”
— Andrea Domanick, The Los Angeles Times, 27 March 2019

“Dalits are not allowed to sit at this temple, but any Gujjar, including a child, can. This is how it goes for many Dalits, their life circumscribed by what they are not allowed to do.”
— Jeffrey Gettleman and Suhasini Raj, The New York Times, 17 November 2018