cir·​cum·​scribe | \ˈsər-kᵊm-ˌskrīb \
circumscribed; circumscribing; circumscribes

Definition of circumscribe 

transitive verb

1a : to constrict (see constrict sense 1) the range or activity of definitely and clearly his role was carefully circumscribed

b : to define or mark off carefully a study of plant species in a circumscribed area

2a : to draw a line around circumscribed the misspelled words

b : to surround by or as if by a boundary fields circumscribed by tall trees

3 : to construct or be constructed around (a geometrical figure) so as to touch as many points as possible a circle circumscribing a square

Keep scrolling for more

Synonyms & Antonyms for circumscribe


cap, confine, hold down, limit, restrict



Visit the Thesaurus for More 

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

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, circumcise, 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 14th century; it was originally spelled circumscrive, but the "circumscribe" spelling had also appeared by the end of the century.

Examples of circumscribe in a Sentence

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

Lopez is delighted to feel a little sunshine on his face; to be in a conversation, however circumscribed, with Federer. New York Times, "He’s Just as Good as Roger Federer, in One Category, at Least," 25 May 2018 Our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed, but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves. Li Zhou, Vox, "Read John McCain’s final letter to America," 1 Sep. 2018 Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves. Natalie Andrews, WSJ, "John McCain’s Farewell Statement," 27 Aug. 2018 The cover featured a close-up of British model of the moment Jean Shrimpton, with her face circumscribed by a Matisse-like pink cutout that vaguely suggested the curves of an astronaut’s helmet. Stephen Mooallem, Harper's BAZAAR, "Pop Goes Bazaar: A Look Back at the Magazine in the 1960s," 9 June 2017 Of all his political gifts and tools, Obama has always been most hesitant to wield raw power, circumscribing the options available to him by dismissing the bluntest tools as either immediately or eventually counterproductive. Gabriel Debenedetti, Daily Intelligencer, "Where Is Barack Obama?," 24 June 2018 The jurisdiction and power of the special counsel is highly circumscribed and subject to Justice Department approval. Neal Katyal, Time, "President Trump Is Wrong. The Mueller Probe Is Constitutional," 7 June 2018 Nevertheless, under the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis, his father’s academic career became circumscribed. Martin Weil, Washington Post, "Gustav Born, British medical researcher who studied blood platelets, dies at 96," 5 May 2018 The Associated Press reported that by the late ’90s, the EPA had discovered the air in a nearby town contained dangerous levels of nearly a dozen pollutants — and this was three miles from the factories, whereas Africatown is circumscribed by them. Nick Tabor, Daily Intelligencer, "Africatown and the 21st-Century Stain of Slavery," 2 May 2018

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.

See More

First Known Use of circumscribe

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for circumscribe

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about circumscribe

Share circumscribe

Listen to Our Podcast about circumscribe

Statistics for circumscribe

Last Updated

29 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for circumscribe

The first known use of circumscribe was in the 14th century

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for circumscribe



English Language Learners Definition of circumscribe

: to limit the size or amount of (something)

: to draw a shape around (another shape)

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on circumscribe

What made you want to look up circumscribe? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


a nest or breeding place

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Late Autumn 2018 Words of the Day Quiz

  • frosted-autumn-leaves
  • Which is a synonym of yahoo?
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

Bee Cubed

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!