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1. Definition
Definition, "the act of stating a precise meaning" (The American Heritage Dictionary), tells
us what something is. Definition is especially important in writing because there is no
opportunity for the reader to seek clarification from the writer about the meaning of a
particular term. Therefore, the writer must clearly and precisely define the meaning of any
terms which may be ambiguousthat is, which have a double meaningor which he thinks
the reader does not know. The lack of a needed definition, or the use of an imprecise
definition, can result in a serious breakdown in communication between writer and reader.
The writer must know his reader before he can make a decision about when to define. The
most important factor is the reader's level of knowledge. For example, the student writing a
report on thermodynamics would probably decide not to define the term thermal efficiency if
his audience consisted only of his physics professor. However, he might consider a definition
essential if the report were intended for high school students or for "lay" readers, that is, for
readers outside their particular field of expertise.
The length of a definition can range from a single word, phrase or sentence to a whole book.
Length depends on such factors as the particular complexity of the term, the reader's level of
knowledge, and the writer's purpose in defining. For students, a definition is most often a
small part of a larger piece of writing. For example, just one or two short sentence definitions
may be needed in a composition whose primary purpose is to compare two manufacturing
techniques. Sometimes, however, definition is itself the primary purpose of the writing. In
such cases, a definition could be much longer; these are generally referred to as extended
Definitions can be classified into two principal categories according to their length:






Short Definitions
Short definitions often consist of a single word or phrase, like those in a dictionary or they
could be the length of a sentence. They are particularly useful for defining concrete terms or

any terms about which there is already general agreement, such as scientific terms. Writers
sometimes quote definitions directly from an authoritative dictionary or textbook. In this
case, however, quotation marks are usually used, and the source of the definition is usually
stated. Sometimes, one or two additional sentences follow a sentence definition in order to
clarify the term.
Synonym and Phrase Definitions
Underline the synonyms and phrase definitions in the following sentences:
The field of robots is designed to give to robots visual perception (sight);
tactile capabilities (touch); dexterity (skill in handling and manipulation);
locomotion (ability to move); and navigation (intelligence to find one's way).
Cooling towers also present environmental problems since evaporated water
can cause increased precipitation, i.e., rainfall.
The sale of goods is an agreement by which the vendor (seller) transfers
ownership of goods to the vendee (buyer).
Both the 30 and the 45 triangles include two edges that are orthogonal, that
is, mutually perpendicular, to each other.
Modems, devices linking computers with each other or with information
services, are becoming increasingly powerful and sophisticated.
Sentence Definitions
One common type of sentence definition, often referred to as a formal definition, consists of
three elements:



Specific Differences

The term is the particular word or expression that needs defining (eg Twitter). The class is
the category to which this word belongs (eg twitter is an instant messaging system). The
specific differences are those features of the term that make it different from all the other
terms that belong in the same class (eg Twitter is an instant messaging system that allows the
user to send short text messages.). The specific differences are usually given in the relative
clause or prepositional phrase that follows the class.
Study the following sentence definitions. In each case, identify the term, class, and specific
differences. (Note that two of the definitions below have a different sequence of elements
from the others.)
Computer hardware can be defined as the machinery and equipment used in
computer applications.
We can define carbon footprint as the measure of carbon dioxide which is
produced by a person or organization over a given period of time.

A paywall is a website feature that allows access only to paying subscribers.
The process by which a solid changes directly to a vapor without passing
through the liquid phase is called sublimation.
A word that sounds the same as another word but is spelled differently is
known as a homophone.
Be as specific as possible when defining. For example, use adjectives to specify the class, as
in the "twitter" example above (an instant messaging service). Also, be sure that the
specific differences really do distinguish the term from other terms in the same class; the
definition "A chair is a four-legged piece of furniture which is usually made of wood" could
apply equally well to a table.
Avoid imprecise classes, such as "thing" or "person," which are much too general. On the
other hand, do not use highly technical words for the class or specific differences unless you
are sure your audience will understand them. A lay reader, for example, will not be helped by
a definition such as "A dictyostele is an amphiphloic siphonostele broken up into a network
of meristeles." However, a professional botanist might appreciate its precision and clarity.
Finally, whenever possible, avoid circularity, which occurs when the term and class, or term
and specific differences, are the same. A formal definition such as "A neutral solution is a
solution which is neutral" will not help the reader in any way.
Exercise 1
Identify weaknesses in the following definitions.

1. A geologist is someone who studies geology.

2. We can define a pencil as a tool for writing.
3. Inorganic substances that occur naturally in the earth are defined as minerals.
4. A thermometer is a thing for measuring heat.
5. A brunch is when you combine breakfast and lunch.

Exercise 2 Short Definitions

Use your general knowledge to write short definitions of some of
the following terms. Focus on the essential characteristics of the
term: the class it belongs to and the specific differences that
distinguish it from other terms in the same class.


hybrid car


flash memory
a spellchecker



Extended Definitions
Often, a single sentence, or even a couple of sentences, is insufficient to clarify the meaning
of a particular term; the writer needs to go beyond merely stating its basic meaning. This is
especially true for the definition of broad abstract terms such as "education" or "success,"
where opinions may differ. New terms, like twitter, may also require extended definitions as
do many technical terms because of their particular complexity.
We can define an extended definition as any piece of writing consisting of one or more
paragraphs whose purpose is to define a particular term. A one-paragraph extended definition
often begins with a formal sentence definition which acts as the topic sentence. This sentence
is then followed by several others which extend the definition by exemplifying, partitioning,
describing, classifying, comparing, contrasting, and so on. For example, how could you write
an extended definition for the word ghutra to help a foreigner understand the word? After the
initial sentence definition, ghutra could be described in terms of its size, shape, colours and
texture. Ask yourself questions: how is it worn? What are its functions? Are there different
types? Is there a geographical spread for each type? What is known about its history? With an
extended definition, even a familiar word like ghutra requires a good deal of thought.
Exemplification is one of the commonest and most useful ways of supporting the topic
sentence of an extended definition. For example, a definition of the term "allotrope" could be
extended with examples of elements, such as carbon, which have allotropes. A definition of
the term "entropy" (a measure of spontaneous change) could be extended by giving examples
of spontaneous processes, such as ice cubes melting at room temperature or iron rusting.
Description is another common way of extending a definition. For example, a mechanism
could be described in terms of its dimensions, its parts, functions and materials. Classification
is common. For example, a definition of "natural resources" could be extended by first
classifying these resources into two basic types, renewable and nonrenewable. Analogy is
another useful tool: the term diode, for example, could be compared with a water tap in the
way the flow of electrons (water) is directed.
The following table gives just a few of the many possibilities for extending a definition:
Topic Sentence: Sentence-length definition

Supporting sentences:
Causal analysis

(extended example)
(comparison of the unfamiliar with the familiar)
(origin of the term)
(what the term is not)
(single word with the same meaning)
(division into types)
(division into parts, topics, features, etc.)
(historical development)
(mechanism, process, place, characteristics, etc.)
(causes, effects)

The following paragraph illustrates an extended definition for the term exposition. It extends
the initial formal definition in a variety of ways:

etymology of the term


The class

Exposition (from the Latin exponere, meaning "to make

known" or "to reveal") is a type of writing whose primary
purpose is to inform and explain, rather than to entertain or
synonym definition

to persuade. For example, in writing a composition, you

might have to define a technical term for the benefit of
your "audience" (reader). You might have to classify a


formal definition
(topic sentence)

number of concepts into one or two basic types, and then

(what the term is not)
synonym definition

describe and exemplify each type. Another composition

might require you to compare and contrast two processes,
or to examine the causes of a particular problem and then
to analyze the resulting effects. In all these cases, your

(not always necessary)

primary purpose in writing is to impart knowledge to your


Exercise 3 Model Texts

Analyze the following extended definitions carefully.
In each case, identify
(1) the three elements of the formal sentence definition;
(2) the patterns of development used to extend the definition.

Example 1
Carbon footprint
The term carbon footprint can be defined as the measure of carbon
dioxide produced by a person or organization over a given period of
time. Just as a person produces a trail of footprints when he walks through
sand or mud, he also produces CO2 emissions through his normal daily
activities. For instance, apart from breathing, which is unavoidable, a large
amount of CO2 may be produced through driving to work, watching TV or
just having the lights switched on. A huge amount will be produced by
flying away on vacation. Not everybody has the same size footprint: people
living in developed countries tend to have a much larger carbon footprint
than those in less developed countries. The size of a persons carbon
footprint is becoming increasingly important because CO2 is a greenhouse
gas and the more we produce, the more endangered our planet becomes.

Example 2
What is a Transmission?
A transmission is a system which carries force from one place to
another or changes its direction. Transmissions are used to carry
force and motion from the engine of a power system to the object to be
moved (the load). They can be mechanical, using parts such as gears,
pulleys, cams and levers to transmit force; hydraulic, using pressure on
a fluid such as water; or electrical, using wires to carry current from its
place of generation to the point where it will be used.

Example 3
Definition of the Term "System"
A system can be very simply defined as a group of interrelated
or interacting elements forming a unified whole. Many examples of
systems can be found in the physical and biological sciences, in modern
technology, and in human society. For example, we can talk of the
physical system of the sun and its planets, the biological system of the
human body, the technological system of an oil refinery, and the
socioeconomic system of a business organization.
Example 4
Chemical Solutions
A solution is a homogeneous mixture of a solute (substance being dissolved)
distributed through a solvent (substance doing the dissolving). Solutions exist in
any of the three physical states: gas, liquid, or solid. For example, air, the most
common gaseous solution, is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and lesser amounts of
other gases. Many metal alloys are solid solutions. An example is the US "nickel"
coin, which is 25% Ni and 75% Cu. However, the most familiar solutions are those in
the liquid state, especially ones in which water is the solvent.
Example 5
The Geiger Counter
The Geiger counter is a device which detects radiation by means of the
ionization of a medium. It consists of a cylindrical metal tube filled with gas at low
pressure and a long wire along the axis of the tube. The wire is maintained at a high
positive potential (about 103 V) with respect to the tube. It works in the following
way: when a high-energy particle or photon enters the tube through a thin window at
one end, some of the atoms of the gas become ionized. The electrons removed from
the atoms are attracted toward the positive wire, and in doing so they ionize other
atoms in their path. This results in a huge number of electrons, which produces a
current pulse at the output of the tube. After the pulse is amplified, it can be either
used to trigger an electronic counter or delivered to a loudspeaker, which clicks each
time a particle is detected.

Example 6
In the following extended definition, find examples of:

Chronology (historical background)

Twitter can be defined as an instant messaging service that allows users to send and
receive short text messages instantaneously. It first started in 2006 as a type of social network to
help people keep in touch. The word itself is derived from the short high-pitched sound that a bird
makes, but which is also the word to describe silly or unimportant chatter. Tweet is the word for a
twitter message and it is also the verb form. So tweeting can be defined as the instant
communication of short messages to family and friends about everyday matters for the purpose of
informing and being informed.
It works in the following way. A user first opens an account at twitter.com, and can then start
to tweet updates to other tweeters using a computer or mobile phone. The tweeter can also follow
other users by signing up to different accounts. Twitter is comparable to other instant messaging
services provided by Skype, Microsoft and Yahoo but, unlike them, it cannot send long text
messages or provide video. In fact, the maximum length of a tweet is only 140 characters. Millions
of tweets are sent every day and some famous tweeters have many thousands of followers. Twitter
has gone beyond simple communication with friends and family and is now being used for
commercial and political purposes.

Exercise 4 Extended Definition

Write extended definitions for some of the following. Begin with a
sentence definition; then add support. You may need to research
your topic using an encyclopedia, a textbook or an internet
search engine such as Google.

1. Extend some of the definitions in Exercise 2.

11. podcast

2. smog (etymology?)

12. satellite

3. Youtube

13. mirage

4. shisha

14. invasive species

5. sophomore (etymology?)

15. catch 22

6. photography (etymology?)

16. peer pressure

7. modem (etymology?)

17. classification

8. atom (etymology?)

18. polymer (etymology)

9. tsunami

19. success

10. peninsula (etymology?)

20. radar (etymology?)