ITS 311: IT Communications

Chapter 7: Defining Terms


This chapter discusses several types of definitions. Objectives important to this chapter:

  1. Definitions in technical writing
  2. Types of definitions
  3. 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, but 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 buckle, part of a bell, or anything that is shaped like a tongue. This is an example 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 specific context.

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 phrase, show the 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 term 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 opposite meaning
    • 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 context.
  • too narrow - The writer has not given a definition that is general enough that the reader might recognize other cases of the thing being defined.
  • 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 same word.