Lexical Definitions

Explaining How a Word is Used In General Contexts

Most of the time when encountering a definition, you are looking at a lexical definition. A lexical definition (sometimes also called a reportive definition) is any definition which explains how a word is actually used. It is thus distinct from stipulative definitions which simply propose a possible way to use a word and which may or may not be accepted. Therefore, lexical definitions are capable of being true or false, of being accurate or inaccurate.

If there are choices between different types of definitions, the lexical definition is commonly thought of as the real definition. Because it describes how words are genuinely used, there is some basis for this judgment. Lexical definitions have a serious drawback, however, because they are often vague or ambiguous. This is not surprising because they reflect the real-world usage of words, and that is rife with vagueness and ambiguity.

Vagueness and Ambiguity in Lexical Definitions

Although vagueness and ambiguity are often used interchangeably, the two terms are nonetheless distinct. A word is vague when there are borderline cases which might or might not fit in the definition and it isn't easy to tell how to classify them. The word fresh is vague because it isn't clear at what point a sample of, say, fruit will qualify as fresh and at what point it stops being fresh.

Ambiguity occurs when there are a number of completely distinct ways in which the term can be used.

Words that can be ambiguous include right and light. Right may be an adjective, adverb, noun, verb, or simple exclamation. As an adjective alone it may mean being correct, objectively and factually true, morally good, justifiable, virtuous, ethical, proper, honest, or socially acceptable. Those are many gradations when it comes to ethics and religion.

You may need to seek further clarification of what the author or speaker means when using the term right.

The term light can be both vague and ambiguous. It is ambiguous because it might be "radiant energy" or "of little weight." If the latter, it is vague because it is unclear at what point something starts being light and stops being heavy. A good lexical definition will seek to reduce ambiguity by highlighting only the sense that is truly relevant.

Examples of Lexical Definitions

Here are two examples of lexical definitions of the word atheist:

1. atheist: one who disbelieves in or denies the existence of God or gods.
2. atheist: one who knows that God exists, but is in denial for some reason.

The first is a correct definition in the lexical sense because it accurately describes how the term atheist is used in a wide variety of contexts.

The second, however, is an incorrect definition in the lexical sense. You won't find it in any dictionaries or in widespread use, but it is a definition used in narrow circles of evangelical Christians. Rather than a lexical definition, this more properly an example of a persuasive definition.

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Cline, Austin. "Lexical Definitions." ThoughtCo, Oct. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/lexical-definitions-250307. Cline, Austin. (2017, October 11). Lexical Definitions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lexical-definitions-250307 Cline, Austin. "Lexical Definitions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lexical-definitions-250307 (accessed October 18, 2017).