ITS 311: IT Communications
Chapter 7: Defining Terms
This chapter discusses several types of definitions. Objectives important
to this chapter:
- Definitions in technical writing
- Types of definitions
- Common errors in definitions
Definitions in technical writing
The author begins this chapter with a description of the complexity
of English. Her comments apply to other languages as well, in that a
technical writer will need to define terms, describe parts and procedures,
and make comparisons regardless of the language being used. The focus
of much of this book is on the English language, so we will stay with
that focus here.
Technical writing often contains words that are used in specific ways
in different disciplines. On page 235, the author offers the word
tongue as an example. It is probably a word that the
reader immediately understands,
incorrectly depending on context. A tongue can be a
structure in a mouth, a strip of land, part of a shoe, a language, part
of a belt
part of a bell, or anything that is shaped like a tongue. This is an
of a commonly used word that is used in uncommon ways.
It is an example of a problem that may be avoided if the technical
writer defines terms that
are likely to be misunderstood or not understood.
In order to perform this function, the technical writer must watch
for words of this type
when doing research, and must seek to understand the operational
definitions of these words.
An operational definition is the specific meaning of a word or
phrase given to it by the group of people who use the word in their
In general, a good dictionary may provide all the definitions many words
need. Several respected dictionaries are listed in the text, such as
the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Webster's
New World Dictionary, and the Random House Dictionary. These are all
general dictionaries, in that they are not limited to and may not contain
the operational definitions of terms used in technical writing.
Online dictionaries are very useful, but caution should be used
in taking only the first reference found in an online search. A recommended
site for searching for definitions is OneLook.
The search engine at this site consults many online dictionaries, both
general and specialized. Try searching for tongue at OneLook. You will
find other meanings that are not in your text.
Types of definitions
Four categories of definitions are offered, beginning on page 237, each
of which has its own appeal:
- Parenthetical definition - When defining a word that the
reader will easily understand if shown a synonym or alternative
synonym in parentheses immediately after the word. Example: The
software has received many reviewers' accolades (praises).
- Defining phrase - It is sometimes beneficial to use a term as
it is used by the profession you are writing about, and to follow the
with a few words to explain it. Example: A technical writer should
ask a colleague to proof each draft, to read
through it for errors.
- Formal sentence - A formula is given for writing a definition in
a sentence. Start with the word or phrase, state the class (the category the word belongs to), and the distinguishing
characteristics that make it different from other members of its class. Example: An
operational definition (phrase) is the specific meaning
of a word or phrase (class) given to it by the group
of people who use the word in their
specific context (distinguishing characteristics).
- Extended definition - This version of a definition
is the longest, offering the freedom to provide insight into the origin
of the term, additional meanings, synonyms and antonyms, and more.
Additional terms are defined here that may be used in definitions:
- denotation - The most basic meaning of a term,
usually the first meaning in a dictionary entry
- connotation - The most familiar meaning of
a term to a user
- synonym - Another word or phrase that has the
same or almost the same meaning
- antonym - Another word or phrase that has the
- description - As used here, a longer, more detailed
description than is provided by a single formal sentence. This
may include a description of each part of a device.
- contrast - A discussion of the term as it compares to a term
that has a different meaning
- comparison - A discussion of the term as it relates to a term
similar in meaning
- analogy - This method uses similes or metaphors
to explain a thing as being like something else. Example: a network
router is a device that works like an airport traffic controller,
keeping network signals moving toward their destinations, and avoiding
collisions between them.
- origin - An explanation of where a term comes from, who first
used it, or the circumstances in which it was first used.
- etymology - A more formal statement about the language roots
of a word. Technical terms may not have actual roots of this sort.
The author explains that they are often acronyms that are better
understood when the letters or parts of the word are explained.
Common errors in definitions
Definition fallacies (page 239) are errors a technical writer might
make when writing definitions. Most are easily understood:
- too technical - The writer has not explained plainly enough.
- too broad - The writer has not focused on what the word means in
- too narrow - The writer has not given a definition that is general
enough that the reader might recognize other cases of the thing being
- circular - Typically, the writer has defined a phrase using one of
the words in the phrase, or defined a word using another form of the