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.
I've often encountered this type of problem in my own academic writing (and not only in theses). The problem is that it's often difficult to talk about something before you've defined what it is. But at the same time, it's awkward to write so much expository material before being able to talk about your own stuff. It's up to you to work out, for your document in particular, the best way to present these necessary definitions.
Given that you want to say what your work is about as soon as possible, you can't avoid mentioning at least a few of these technical terms before introducing them formally. For one thing, you may well have to put them in the title! Often, you can present just enough in the abstract and introduction to allow readers to get an idea of the technicalities, but not overwhelm them with detail. The trick is to make sure your presentation is accurate and useful. If you make it too vague ("the Riemann Hypothesis is a very hard problem") then nobody is helped.
A literature review chapter is often a natural place to put definitions. It's hard to say anything meaningful about the literature if you haven't introduced the terms that the literature talks about. Also, exploring the past contributions to your subject certainly includes identifying who came up with particular definitions, who disagreed, how they adapted the definitions, and so on. This is the case for the dissertation in your first link, which defines "research" in the literature review, in the context of conflicting definitions of what research actually is (p19). The author still talks about research in the preceding pages - but that is the point where she sets the scene for her own work, using that definition in particular.
Material which is more basic or less contested could be introduced earlier, if you like. If it is general background, which readers need to know in order to understand anything you've done, but which the thesis is not particularly "about", then the introduction is a fine place for it.
Equally, definitions could be in their own section - either towards the beginning, or as an appendix. I often see this in documents where the definitions are basic reference material. Some readers will know them already, and skip the chapter; others can read in more detail. Again, this option separates the definitions from the literature review, on the basis that the definitions are simply fundamental to the field.
Ultimately, the choice is yours, unless your institution tells you what to do. I hope these thoughts will be helpful as you consider which option is best for presenting your work.
answered Apr 13 '14 at 18:56