Using Word Definitions in Formal Essays:
Incorporation and Citation

by Robbie Glen

 

  1. Which dictionary to use: Use the Oxford English Dictionary as your source. Always. There is no substitute. The OED is available online through the Penn Library site: from the library home page, select Reference Shelf, then Oxford English Dictionary, or http://dictionary.OED.com/entrance.dtl

     

  2. What to call the OED: The first time you refer to the dictionary in your paper, use the full title: the Oxford English Dictionary. After the first time (which may come in the body of a paragraph or in a citation), then you may use the abbreviation OED throughout.

    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.

     

  3. Writing the title properly: Titles are always italicized or underlined, as shown above.

     

  4. What the citation will look like: Include the particulars in your citation. If you are using one of the definitions of sympathy in your paper, you might say something like this:
    Sympathy, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, can
    be 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 defer
    identifying 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.

     

  5. Identifying the word as a term under analysis: As you can see above, I like to offset the term that is being defined or discussed by underlining it. This is to prevent any confusion that might occur if the term is one that might be mistaken for a word that is simply functioning as part of the sentence, rather than a term under analysis (not such a problem with a word like sympathy, but really confusing with more common words). Italicizing the term is acceptable too, although if you are using any foreign language terms or phrases in your paper, standard form dictates that those must be italicized, so there can be some resultant confusion if foreign terms and words under analysis are italicized. This is why I like to underline instead. Whichever you choose, please do not capitalize the word (unless, of course, it falls at the beginning of a sentence). This was fashionable and correct in the eighteenth century, but, alas, not any longer. Consistent capitalization, particularly of a noun, also tends to convey the intent to personify, thus Love, Truth, and Sympathy would be interpreted quite differently from love, truth, and sympathy.

     

  6. Being consistent: As you'll see, underlining can seem rather redundant when the sentence mentions things like "definitions." However, if you are getting into a fairly in-depth discussion of the word in question, you'll find that you won't always want to say "the definition of sympathy", but rather just sympathy. In the interest of consistency, therefore, underlining all the time has its value.

     


    Here is the link to the definition of Sympathy as a noun.