Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A definition is a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase.

As a method of exposition, a definition may be brief or extended, part of an essay or an entire essay.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "boundary"

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]he traditional dictionary definition, although it bears all the trappings of authority, is in fact a highly stylized, overly compressed and often tentative stab at capturing the consensus on what a particular word 'means.' A good dictionary derives its reputation from careful analysis of examples of words in use, in the form of sentences, also called citations. The lexicographer looks at as many citations for each word as she can find . . . and then creates what is, in effect, a dense abstract, collapsing into a few general statements all the ways in which the word behaves. A definition is as convention-bound as a sonnet and usually more compact."
    (Erin McKean, "Redefining Definition." The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2009)
  • Definitions . . . are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us a foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey's end we want them no longer."
    (Samuel Butler, "Thought and Language," 1890)
  • Limitations of Definitions
    "Because words must constantly be adapted to a changing world, no neat one-to-one correspondence exists between words and meanings. On the contrary, the relationship is messy: a single word may have half a dozen meanings or more, while several words may designate the same concept or entity. Thus depression means one thing to a psychologist, another to an economist, and another still to a geologist. But psychological 'depression' may also be conveyed by melancholia, the blues, or the dismals, in the dumps, low, and so on."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. Berkley, 1988)

  • An Analogous Definition of Definition
    "[W]e can approach the problem more constructively if we adopt a less stringent definition of 'definition' itself, along the lines of Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion of 'family resemblances.' In a family of ten people, for instance, there may be five or six distinctive facial or bodily features that recur among them, but it might happen that two or even three members have no such feature in common. They might each have two or three of the family traits, but not the same two or three. The other members of the family may each have four or five of them, so there are many overlaps, and when you have had a good look at, say, five members of the family, you are likely to pick out the other five from a crowd. A definition based on this idea would amount to a list of distinctive traits, with some ranking as to importance and generality, but no one trait, maybe not even two or three, would be definitive."
    (Michael Ferber, Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • The Error of Circular Definition
    "We cannot define a word by repeating the word itself in the definition. If we define the word statistician by saying that it means anybody who makes a profession of compiling statistics, we have committed this error. The real question: 'What kind of thing does a statistician do?' is left unanswered. The pretended definition does not enlarge anybody's knowledge; it merely repeats the term to be defined: statistics, statistician. It is also possible to make the error of circular definition without repeating a word, but merely repeating an idea, as, 'The causes of war are the several factors that result in armed conflict.'"
    (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Modern Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Harcourt, 1972)
  • Understanding Definitions
    "Telling the difference--identifying what two items have in common and what makes them different--is what we call a definition. . . .

    "In the real, psycholinguistic world, a definition is not learned all at once; it is learned bit by bit, by adding features of meaning to the account. We must not expect total accuracy first time. To say that a factory is a place where you make things is actually a half-truth. To be precise, according to one dictionary, it is 'a building or group of buildings in which goods are produced in large quantities, using machines' (The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). That would be too much to take in all at once."
    (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2005)
  • "A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words. . . .

    "Definitions are a kind of scratching and generally leave a sore place more sore than it was before."
    (Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, 1912)

  • The Definition Game
    "The point of this game is to see what happens when one substitutes dictionary definitions for some or all of the words in a piece of poetry or prose. For example, by replacing words in the first lines of Shakespeare's Macbeth with their definitions from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, one can change: 'When shall we three meet again: In thunder, lightning, or in rain?' into:
    At what time shall we one more than two join or fasten correctly another time:
    In a loud rumbling or crashing noise heard after a lightning flash, a flash of bright light produced by an electric discharge, or in the condensed moisture of the atmosphere falling visibly in separate drops?"
    (Tony Augarde, The Oxford A to Z of Word Games. Oxford University Press,1994)

  • The Lighter Side of Definitions: Brain Sludge
    "Today, as part of our series 'The Human Brain, So To Speak,' we explore the phenomenon of: Brain Sludge.

    "'Brain sludge' is a term coined by leading scientists to describe the vast collection of moronic things that your brain chooses to remember instead of useful information.

    "For example: Take any group of 100 average Americans, and sing to them, 'Come and listen to my story 'bout a man named Jed.' At least 97 of them will immediately sing: 'A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.' They will sing this even if they are attending a funeral. They can't help it."
    (Dave Barry, "Brain Sludge." Dave Barry Is From Mars and Venus. Crown, 1997)

Pronunciation: DEF-eh-NISH-en

Also Known As: formal definition, dictionary definition