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.
Titanic, however, is no soulless junket into techno-glop wizardry but rather a complex and radiant tale that essays both mankind's destructive arrogance and its noble endurance.
—thr staff, The Hollywood Reporter, "'Titanic': THR's 1997 Review,"19 Dec. 2017
That combination is perfectly suited to his Christmas Tree-O project, which sanguinely essays holiday themes—both classic and schmaltzy—with gusto and ardor.
—peter margasak, Chicago Reader, "Drummer Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O deftly walks the line between sincerity and kitsch with its stroll through holiday hits,"8 Dec. 2017
Daria channeled her struggle into a college admissions essay that talks about losing herself in literature to cope with moving from hotel room to hotel room after Sandy.
—megan friedman, Seventeen, "This Incredible Girl Bounced Back From a Hurricane to Get Into 7 Ivy League Schools,"20 Apr. 2015
Both Lively and Bilson opted for youthful, dressy shorts, while Chung essayed the season's maxi hemline.
—veronique hyland, Harper's BAZAAR, "Chanel Cruise 2012: Karl's Seaside Crossing,"9 May 2011
Macmillan doesn’t make W the easiest person to live with, and Brooke essays a lovably irritating presence.
—marcus crowder, sacbee.com, "Theater review: Breathe in the post-modern air of ‘Lungs’,"24 May 2017
Azais, who scored a Cesar award for his performance in 2014’s Love at First Fight (Les Combattants), here essays a coming-of-age transformation that essentially attempts to reunite Vincent with his mother.
—justin lowe, The Hollywood Reporter, "‘A Taste of Ink’ (‘Compte tes blessures’): Film Review | COLCOA 2017,"16 May 2017
Arthur Nikisch essayed one with the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1919.
—david allen, New York Times, "A Long Party of Concerts to Celebrate Anton Bruckner,"13 Jan. 2017
Acceptance of the prize constitutes permission for Sponsor and its agencies to use Winner’s name and/or likeness, biographical information, [and/or essay, photograph, etc.
—ew staff, EW.com, "The Walking Dead,"29 June 2017