This handout provides suggestions and examples for writing definitions.
Contributors:Mark Pepper, Dana Lynn Driscoll
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:31:46
A formal definition is based upon a concise, logical pattern that includes as much information as it can within a minimum amount of space. The primary reason to include definitions in your writing is to avoid misunderstanding with your audience. A formal definition consists of three parts.
- The term (word or phrase) to be defined
- The class of object or concept to which the term belongs.
- The differentiating characteristics that distinguish it from all others of its class
- Water (term) is a liquid (class) made up of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio of 2 to 1 (differentiating characteristics).
- Comic books (term) are sequential and narrative publications (class) consisting of illustrations, captions, dialogue balloons, and often focus on super-powered heroes (differentiating characteristics).
- Astronomy (term) is a branch of scientific study (class) primarily concerned with celestial objects inside and outside of the earth's atmosphere (differentiating characteristics).
Although these examples should illustrate the manner in which the three parts work together, they are not the most realistic cases. Most readers will already be quite familiar with the concepts of water, comic books, and astronomy. For this reason, it is important to know when and why you should include definitions in your writing.
When to Use Definitions
- When your writing contains a term that may be key to audience understanding and that term could likely be unfamiliar to them
"Stellar Wobble is a measurable variation of speed wherein a star's velocity is shifted by the gravitational pull of a foreign body."
- When a commonly used word or phrase has layers of subjectivity or evaluation in the way you choose to define it
"Throughout this essay, the term classic gaming will refer specifically to playing video games produced for the Atari, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and any systems in-between."
Note: not everyone may define "classic gaming" within this same time span; therefore, it is important to define your terms
- When the etymology (origin and history) of a common word might prove interesting or will help expand upon a point
"Pagan can be traced back to Roman military slang for an incompetent soldier. In this sense, Christians who consider themselves soldiers of Christ are using the term not only to suggest a person's secular status but also their lack of bravery.'
Additional Tips for Writing Definitions
- Avoid defining with "X is when" and "X is where" statements. These introductory adverb phrases should be avoided. Define a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb, and so forth.
- Do not define a word by mere repetition or merely restating the word.
"Rhyming poetry consists of lines that contain end rhymes."
"Rhyming poetry is an art orm consisting of lines whose final words consistently contain identical, final stressed vowel sounds."
- Define a word in simple and familiar terms. Your definition of an unfamiliar word should not lead your audience towards looking up more words in order to understand your definition.
- Keep the class portion of your definition small but adequate. It should be large enough to include all members of the term you are defining but no larger. Avoid adding personal details to definitions. Although you may think the story about your Grandfather will perfectly encapsulate the concept of stinginess, your audience may fail to relate. Offering personal definitions may only increase the likeliness of misinterpretation that you are trying to avoid.
A side note on titles and abbreviations: This abbreviated title rule does not always apply for the body of your paper. The OED may be called the OED in the body because, although it is an abbreviated form, people actually call it this (at least this is my explanation). Generally, abbreviated titles are only acceptable within citations, e.g. a paper on Love's Labour's Lost, while referring to the entire title in the prose, may, after the play has been identified, thereafter cite simply by using LLL followed by the act, scene and line number(s). However, the author would not say, "When the acting company first performed LLL?"-this is too informal, and while I have seen it done, it is rare and best avoided for our purposes. When we get into writing papers that compare and contrast multiple texts from this course, you'll be able to abbreviate Fight Club as FC and The Talented Mr. Ripley as TTMR in your citations, after the first time you've identified the text by its full name. In general, one word titles are not truncated to a single letter, so we won't be representing Vertigo as V.
Sympathy, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, canbe a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party" (OED, n. 3.d.).OR, if you've already mentioned the OED:sympathy can be a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party"(OED, n. 3.d.).OR, if you haven't yet mentioned the OED, and choose to deferidentifying the source until the citation itself, then:sympathy can be a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party"(Oxford English Dictionary, n. 3.d.).
I've attached the OED's entry for sympathy as a noun; as you'll see, there are four main definitions, and #1 and #3 have sub-definitions. The citation I use above shows my reader that I am referring first to the entry for sympathy as a noun, secondly that it is definition number 3, and thirdly that it is sub-definition d. Citing so specifically is crucial, especially since differences between various definitions can often be maddeningly subtle on first examination. If you are using a definition to shape or support your argument, you want to eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding on the part of your reader.