Definition: Establishing Boundaries No rational argument, scientific theory, or philosophical position is possible without a precise definition of the terms involved. Where there is confusion about the meaning of key terms, such as the often-disputed idea of “feminism,” then communication can break down.
Many people, however, regard definitions as merely the subject matter of dictionaries to be used only in moments of complete bewilderment. Besides knowing how to write definitions, we need to understand their relevance to thought and communication.
Gendering When you define, you identify the features that distinguish a term, thereby establishing its boundaries, and separating it from all others. Knowing these features enables both you and your reader to use the term appropriately. Feminist Heterosexism Patriarchy Misogyny
Essential Definitions An essential definition does 3 things: Names the item being defined Places it in a broad category Distinguishes it from other items in the category Take a look at the following example: Item Being Defined – a vacuum cleaner Broad Category – a household appliance Distinguishing Feature – uses suction to clean floors, carpets, and upholstery
Pitfalls of Essential Definitions There are limitations on essential definitions. Because they are brief, they can’t truly explain abstract terms such as cowardice, love, power, jealousy. Avoid overly broad or particularly narrow definitions. Be careful NOT to omit the main category. You can do this by naming the main category rather than using phrases like “is where” or “is when” in your definition. Beware of circular definitions which don’t really provide a definition. Which of these would best define a psychiatrist? “a physician who practices psychiatry” or “a physician who diagnoses and treats mental disorders”
Extended Definitions Sometimes, especially when defining abstract words, it is necessary to write a paragraph or even an essay to fully explain a term. For instance, new technical, social, and economic terms often require extended definitions. Extended definitions are montages of other methods of development – narration, description, process analysis, illustration, comparison, and cause and effect. It depends upon the term as to which methods of explanation you will select. You can also use negation to define a word by explaining what it does not mean.
Writing an Extended Definition
Works Cited Reinking, James A. and Robert von derOsten. Strategies for Successful Writing, Ninth Ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011.