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Owen Williams - Definition

Owen Williams


Following the example of ancient Greeks orators, modern writers often discover that they must clarify the meaning of their terms in setting up their position. Defining your terms is not simply dictionary sleuth-work; essentially it is differentiating your term from all others by indicating the nuanced differences distinguishing it from similar words. Definitions range from simple renamings of (usually) concrete terms, or synonyms, to complex examinations of abstract terms (e.g., bravery or hatred) that may take an entire paper to define. Three main kinds of definition may be helpful:

Synonyms: As mentioned, synonyms are the most basic of definitions. They simply rename the term in question. Be aware, however, that the word you supply will shade the meaning of the term; there is never a one-to-one correspondence between any two words. Choose your synonyms painstakingly.

Essential Definitions: One rung up the evolutionary chain of definitions, this next type requires more thought, but the pay-off is also greater. The essential definition usually does not work for abstract terms, but it can clear up confusion about concrete terms. The three parts of an essential definition are (1) the name of the item being defined ("A vacuum cleaner"), (2) its broad category ("is a household appliance"), and (3) its function or features that distinguish it from other items in the same broad category ("that uses suction to clean floors, carpets, and upholstery."). Four pitfalls to watch for: circular definition ("a psychiatrist is a physician who practices psychiatry"), overly broad definition ("a skunk is an animal with a bushy tail and black and white fur - Pepe Le Pew"), overly narrow definition ("a kitchen blender is a bladed electrical appliance used to make daiquiris"), and omission of main categories ("a deli is where one can obtain made-to-order sandwiches").

Extended Definitions: This type of definition often incorporates both of the above types. They are most frequently used to explain abstract terms. For example, if you were going to define democracy in the United States, you would have to describe features like majority rule, free elections, the three branches of government, human rights, and pork barrel projects, and explain them with both synonyms (when possible) and essential definitions. Obviously this definition may take an entire paper to develop correctly.