What Is a Glossary?

Book with quote "It will be a book very imperfect and unintelligible without a glossary"
J. Bridges in a letter to Thomas Hearne, May 25, 1723 (Oxford Historical Society: Publications, Vol. 50). The International Photo Co./Getty Images

A glossary is an alphabetized list of specialized terms with their definitions. In a report, proposal, or book, the glossary is generally located after the conclusion. A glossary is also known as a "clavis," which is from the Latin word for "key." "A good glossary," says William Horton, in "e-Learning by Design," "can define terms, spell out abbreviations, and save us the embarrassment of mispronouncing the shibboleths of our chosen professions."

Importance of a Glossary

"Because you will have numerous readers with multiple levels of expertise, you must be concerned about your use of high-tech language (abbreviations, acronyms, and terms). Although some of your readers will understand your terminology, others won't. However, if you define your terms each time you use them, two problems will occur: you will insult high-tech readers, and you will delay your audience as they read your text. To avoid these pitfalls, use a glossary."

(Sharon Gerson and Steven Gerson, "Technical Writing: Process and Product." Pearson, 2006)

Locating a Glossary in a Class Paper, Thesis, or Dissertation

"You may need a glossary if your thesis or dissertation (or, in some cases, your class paper) includes many foreign words or technical terms and phrases that may be unfamiliar to your readers. Some departments and universities allow or require the glossary to be placed in the back matter, after any appendixes and before the endnotes and bibliography or reference list. If you are free to choose, put it in the front matter if readers must know the definitions before they begin reading. Otherwise, put it in the back matter."

– Kate L. Turabian, "A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed." The University of Chicago Press, 2007

  • "Define all terms unfamiliar to an intelligent layperson. When in doubt, overdefining is safer than underdefining.
  • Define all terms that have a special meaning in your report ('In this report, a small business is defined as . . .').
  • Define all terms by giving their class and distinguishing features, unless some terms need expanded definitions.
  • List all terms in alphabetical order. Highlight each term and use a colon to separate it from its definition.
  • On first use, place an asterisk in the text by each item defined in the glossary.
  • List your glossary and its first page number in the table of contents."

– Tosin Ekundayo, "Thesis Book of Tips and Samples: Under & Post Graduate Guide 9 Thesis Format including APA & Harvard." Notion Press, 2019

Suggestions for Preparing a Glossary

"Use a glossary if your report contains more than five or six technical terms that may not be understood by all audience members. If fewer than five terms need defining, place them in the report introduction as working definitions, or use footnote definitions. If you use a separate glossary, announce its location."

– John M. Lannon, "Technical Communication." Pearson, 2006

Collaborative Glossaries in the Classroom

"Instead of creating a glossary on your own, why not have the students create it as they encounter unfamiliar terms? A collaborative glossary can serve as a focal point for collaboration in a course. Each member of the class could be assigned to contribute a term, a definition, or comments on submitted definitions. Multiple definitions can be rated by you and by the students, with the highest-rated definitions accepted for the final class glossary...When students are responsible for creating the definitions, they are much more likely to remember the word and the correct definition."

– Jason Cole and Helen Foster, "Using Moodle: Teaching With the Popular Open Source Course Management System, 2nd ed." O'Reilly Media, 2008

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Glossary?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-glossary-1690900. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is a Glossary? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-glossary-1690900 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Glossary?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-glossary-1690900 (accessed March 23, 2023).