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.
Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid
(printable version here)
Clustering is a type of prewriting that allows you to explore many ideas as soon as they occur to you. Like brainstorming or free associating, clustering allows you to begin without clear ideas.
To begin to cluster, choose a word that is central to your assignment. For example, if you were writing a paper about the value of a college education, you might choose the word "expectations" and write that word in the middle of your sheet of paper. Circle "expectations," then write words all around it--words that occur to you as you think of "expectations." Write down all words that you associate with "expectations," words that at first may seem to be random. Write quickly, circling each word, grouping words around the central word. Connect your new words to previous ones with lines; when you feel you have exhausted a particular avenue of associations, go back to your central word and begin again.
For example, "expectations" might lead you to consider "the social aspects of college," which may lead you to consider "career networking." You may then find yourself writing down words that compare the types of jobs you might get through career networking. You may end up asking yourself questions such as "What sorts of jobs do I want? Not want?" Have fun with this exercise; even silly questions can open avenues to explore, such as "What if I ended up waiting tables at Buddy's?" "Would I rather be a lion-tamer or an accountant?" "What about my brilliant career as a stand-up comedian?"
Some words will take you nowhere; with other words you may discover that you have many related words to write. Random associations eventually become patterns of logic as you look over your work. After looking over the clustering exercise above, you might conclude that you want an exciting career as a performer of some type rather than a job in the service sector or behind a desk.
Now your sample paper about the value of a college education has some focus: how you expect college to lead to an interesting career that involves creativity, skill, and performance. You might then want to return to the phrase "Job Skills" and develop that part of your cluster, noting the skills that you'd need to reach your ideal career.
Clustering does not take the place of a linear, traditional outline; but, as the example shows, it allows you to explore ideas before committing them to a particular order.
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