cir·​cum·​scribe ˈsər-kəm-ˌskrīb How to pronounce circumscribe (audio)
circumscribed; circumscribing; circumscribes

transitive verb

: to constrict (see constrict sense 1) the range or activity of definitely and clearly
his role was carefully circumscribed
: to define or mark off carefully
a study of plant species in a circumscribed area
: to draw a line around
circumscribed the misspelled words
: to surround by or as if by a boundary
fields circumscribed by tall trees
: to construct or be constructed around (a geometrical figure) so as to touch as many points as possible
a circle circumscribing a square

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Did you know?

Circumscribe has a lot of relatives in English. Its Latin predecessor circumscribere (which roughly translates as "to draw a circle around") derives from circum-, meaning "circle," and scribere, meaning "to write or draw." Among the many descendants of circum- are circuit, circumference, circumnavigate, circumspect, circumstance, and circumvent. Scribere gave us such words as scribe and scribble, as well as ascribe, describe, and transcribe, among others. Circumscribe was first recorded in the 15th century; it was originally spelled circumscrive, but by the end of the century the circumscribe spelling had also appeared.

Choose the Right Synonym for circumscribe

limit, restrict, circumscribe, confine mean to set bounds for.
limit implies setting a point or line (as in time, space, speed, or degree) beyond which something cannot or is not permitted to go.
visits are limited to 30 minutes
restrict suggests a narrowing or tightening or restraining within or as if within an encircling boundary.
laws intended to restrict the freedom of the press
circumscribe stresses a restriction on all sides and by clearly defined boundaries.
the work of the investigating committee was carefully circumscribed
confine suggests severe restraint and a resulting cramping, fettering, or hampering.
our choices were confined by finances

Example Sentences

The circle is circumscribed by a square. circumscribed his enthusiasm so as not to make the losing side feel worse
Recent Examples on the Web Since January of last year, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other action that would circumscribe teaching on these sensitive subjects, according to a database maintained by Education Week. Chelsea Sheasley, The Christian Science Monitor, 8 June 2022 This record is unsurprising given the Supreme Court’s 1980 opinion in Industrial Union Dept. AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute, which held that Congress originally intended to narrowly circumscribe the authority to issue ETSs. Joel Zinberg, National Review, 14 Sep. 2021 All those very much circumscribe their ability to thrive. Karin Wulf, Smithsonian Magazine, 5 Mar. 2021 Still, the careful effort to circumscribe the retaliatory operation risks leaving the impression that Biden opted for a political strike rather than a substantive punishment. Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner, 26 Feb. 2021 This is the effect of her books, too, in which vast, inhuman forces circumscribe her characters’ most personal experiences. Alice Gregory, The New Yorker, 9 Nov. 2020 SuperBalls became the darlings of physics professors, who took them to classes and circumscribed their bounces in equations and matrices at just the moment when cheap Zectron knockoffs were hitting gumball machines worldwide. New York Times, 3 Apr. 2020 Contempt for Congress flourishes alongside an increasingly common belief among both Republicans and Democrats that the presidency is the main engine of government, rather than an office whose power was deliberately circumscribed by the Constitution. Fergus M. Bordewich, Time, 21 Feb. 2020 The election results will also affect the make-up of the committees, tightly circumscribed by Beijing, which every five years choose the chief executive. The Economist, 21 Nov. 2019 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'circumscribe.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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Word History


Middle English circumscriven, from Latin circumscribere, from circum- + scribere to write, draw — more at scribe

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of circumscribe was in the 15th century


Dictionary Entries Near circumscribe

Cite this Entry

“Circumscribe.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Aug. 2022.

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