DEFINITION

See:   Strategies for Successful Writing.  5th ed. (Canadian).. . Chapter 10 and 12. 

          Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students.  3.  126 - 129.

           PowerPoint

What is a Definition? : - A description of something by identifying its properties while isolating it from everything else in its class. I.e., by saying what it’s not.                

A definition puts a word or concept into a general class (Classification),

and then provides details to distinguish it from others in its class (Division).

E.g., "knife" - a cutting instrument (class)

with a sharp blade set in a handle, either fixed or pull-out.

Classification: Groups items into categories according to some consistent principle.  -  Synthesis

Division: Divides an item into its parts.  -  Analysis (an act of critical thinking)

 

Examples

A. The following two paragraphs are a good example of the classification/division process.

As you read these two paragraphs, establish which paragraph deals with classification and which with division.

Every lever has one fixed point called a "fulcrum" and is acted upon by two forces - the "effort" (exertion of hand muscles) and the "weight" (object’s resistance). Levers work according to a simple formula: the effort (how hard you push or pull) multiplied by its distance from the fulcrum (effort arm) equals the weight multiplied by its distance from the fulcrum (weight arm). Thus two pounds of effort exerted at a distance of four feet from the fulcrum will raise eight pounds located one foot from the fulcrum.

There are three types of levers, conventionally called "first kind," "second kind," and "third kind." Levers of the first kind have the fulcrum located between the effort and the weight. Examples are a pump handle, an oar, a crowbar, a weighing balance, a pair of scissors, and a pair of pliers. Levers of the second kind have the weight in the middle and magnify the effort. Examples are the handcar crank and doors. Levers of the third kind, such as a power shovel or a baseball batter’s forearm, have the effort in the middle and always magnify the distance.

Notice that the first paragraph describes and explains the quality of "leverness," i.e., how a lever works,

while the second distinguishes between three different types of levers with examples.

(As the engineer sang to the secretary, "There must be fifty ways to love your lever.")

 

B. In the following paragraph, Julian Huxley uses the classification/division technique.

Ants are among the very few organisms other than man which go to war. Individual insects or spiders, fish or birds or mammals, fight each other for food or mates or breeding sites; but this is not war. When a herd of wolves attacks a herd of wild horses, and the prey vigorously defends itself, this is a first approximation to war. But strictly the term should be confined to battles between armies of the same or closely related species. In ants there are all gradations from the pure predatism of such forms as the Legionaries, against which no other ant defends itself, up through stages where the species preyed upon occasionally defends itself vigorously or even takes the offensive, to those of habitual warfare between closely allied species, and, finally, battles between different nests of the same species. (Julian Huxley, Ants)

Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the paragraph?
  2. What is the subject of the paragraph?
  3. What is the basis for classification (the basic definition)?
  4. What is the basis for division?
  5. Huxley identifies four forms of warfare.  A.  What are they? and   B.  Why are they in this order?
  6. Show how this paragraphs might be interpreted as an analogy.

Answers  (See below)

The following guidelines can help you in using classification and division in your writing.

Identify a clear purpose, and be sure that your principle of division is appropriate to that purpose. To determine the makeup of a student body, for example, you might consider the following principles of division: college or program, major, class, level, sex. It would not be helpful to divide students on the basis of their toothpaste unless you had a purpose and thus a reason for doing so.

Divide your subject into categories that are mutually exclusive. An item can belong to only one category. For example, it would be unsatisfactory to divide students as men, women, and athletes.

Make your division and classification complete. Your categories should account for all items in a subject class. In dividing students on the basis of geographic origin, for example, it would be inappropriate to consider only home states, for such a division would not account for foreign students. Then, for your classification to be complete, every student must be placed in one of the established categories.

Be sure to state clearly the conclusion that your division and classification lead you to draw. For example, a study of the student body might lead you to the conclusion that 45 percent of the male athletes with athletic scholarships come from west of the Mississippi.

Why Know How to Write Definitions?

Definitions are necessary for precision in language in cases of :

unfamiliar words (e.g., "accoutrements," "countenance")

words open to interpretation (abstractions such as "liberal, "hate")

words used in a particular sense (terms such as "ram")

They establish a common, mutually agreed-upon language.

How to Write Definitions?

Synonym. Spice up your writing with synonyms. ("face" for "countenance," "accessory" for accoutrement")

Formal Definition. Place the item in a general class then describe its particular characteristics. (e.g., A "watch" may be defined as a mechanical device which is used for telling time and is usually carried or worn.) "Semantics" is an area of linguistics concerned with the study of the meanings of words.

                                     Humorous Definitions

Extended Definition. Usually used for controversial or abstract terms which require interpretation, and often are several paragraphs long.) One might, for instance, define "obscene" by stating what it does not mean and contrasting it to related terms such as "pornographic" and "exotic." One might then describe different types of obscenity.

In all of these methods one might use examples which might be familiar to the reader, comparisons to familiar similar objects, and descriptions.

Ethical Considerations

1.  Avoid features that are unfair.  e.g.,  When defining "excessive force," have you included "reasonable means" as an example (Reinking 204).

2.  Avoid skewing (slanting) to promote a bias. (Reinking 204).

                         

3.  Avoid illustrations and examples that might be harmful.  e.g., all the bad characteristics of teenagers (Reinking 204).

Assignment for Monday

Brainstorm as many ideas you can think of that might help you define an abstract term of your choosing. These terms include:

Charm             Friendship     Hatred             Freedom

Leadership       Liberal         Conservative     Trust

Commitment     Religion       Love                Obscenity

Pornography     Exotic Art     Despair             Joy

And any number of other abstractions.

Your essay should be a minimum of five (5) paragraphs in length and should contain a clear introduction and conclusion.

You may include any of the rhetorical modes studied this semester, among them:

Student Samples


Humorous Definitions

  1. Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.

  2. Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.

  3. Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach

  4. Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.

  5. Willy-nilly (adj.), impotent.

  6. Negligent (adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

  7. Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.

  8. Gargoyle (n.), olive-flavoured mouthwash.

  9. Flatulence (n.) emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller

  10. Balderdash (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.

  11. Testicle (n.), a humorous question on an exam.

  12. Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

  13. Pokemon (n), a Rastafarian proctologist.

  14. Oyster (n.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

  15. Frisbeetarianism (n.), (back by popular demand): The belief that, when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

     

    Southerner's Medical Dictionary

    Artery..............................The study of paintings
    Bacteria.......................... Back door to the cafeteria 
    Barium............................What doctors do when patients die 

    Benign............................ What you be, after you be eight 
    Caesarean Section.........   A neighbourhood in Rome 
    Cat scan......................... Searching for Kitty 
    Cauterize........................ Made eye contact with her 
    Colic................................ A sheep dog 
    Coma.............................. A punctuation mark 
    Dilate.............................. To live long 

    Enema............................ Not a friend 
    Fester............................. Quicker than someone else 
    Fibula............................. A small lie 
    Impotent......................... Distinguished, well known 
    Labour Pain...................  Getting hurt at work 
    Medical Staff..................  A Doctor's cane 
    Morbid............................ A higher offer 
    Nitrates.......................... Cheaper than day rates 
    Node.............................. I knew it 
    Outpatient...................... A person who has fainted 
    Pelvis............................. Second cousin to Elvis 
    Post Operative...............  A letter carrier 
    Recovery Room.............   Place to do upholstery 
    Rectum.......................... **** near killed him 
    Secretion....................... Hiding something 
    Seizure.......................... Roman emperor 
    Tablet............................ A small table 
    Terminal Illness............. Getting sick at the airport 
    Tumor............................ One plus one more 
    Urine..............................Opposite of you're out

     

    THE WASHINGTON POST'S MENSA INVITATIONAL ONCE AGAIN INVITED READERS TO
          TAKE ANY WORD FROM THE DICTIONARY, ALTER IT BY ADDING, SUBTRACTING, OR
          CHANGING ONE LETTER, AND SUPPLY A NEW DEFINITION.

          HERE ARE THE WINNERS:

          1. CASHTRATION (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the
          subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

          2. IGNORANUS: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

          3. INTAXICATON: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you
          realize it was your money to start with.

          4. REINTARNATION: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

          5. BOZONE ( n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops
          bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows
          little sign of breaking down in the near future.

          6. FOREPLOY: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of
          getting laid.

          7. GIRAFFITI: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high

          8. SARCHASM: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person
          who doesn't get it.

          9. INOCULATTE: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

          10. OSTEOPORNOSIS: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

          11. KARMAGEDDON: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these
          really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's
          like, a serious bummer.

          12. DECAFALON (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day
          consuming only things that are good for you.

          13. GLIBIDO: All talk and no action.

          14. DOPELER EFFECT: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when
          they come at you rapidly.

          15. ARACHNOLEPTIC FIT (n.): The frantic dance performed just after
          you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

          16. BEELZEBUG (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your
          bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

          17. CATERPALLOR ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in
          the fruit you're eating.
     


    Word Choice

     

    The train was quite crowded, and a U.S. Marine walked the entire length looking for a seat, but the only seat left was taken by a well-dressed, middle-aged, French woman's poodle.

    The war-weary Marine asked, “Ma'am, may I have that seat?”

    The French woman just sniffed and said to no one in particular
    . “Americans are so rude. My little Fifi is using that seat.”

    The Marine walked the entire train again, but the only seat left was under that dog.

    “Please, ma'am. May I sit down? I'm very tired.”

     She snorted, “Not only are you Americans rude, you are also arrogant!”

    This time the Marine didn't say a word; he just picked up the little dog, tossed it out of the train window, and sat down.

    The woman shrieked, “Someone must defend my honour! This American should be put in his place!”

    An English gentleman sitting nearby spoke up. “Sir, you Americans seem to have a penchant for doing the wrong thing.

    You hold the fork in the wrong hand.

    You drive your cars on the wrong side of the road.

    And now, sir, you seem to have thrown the wrong bitch out of the window.”


    Example B Answers

    1.  Purpose  -  Define "war" and give examples

    2.  Subject  -  Ant warfare

    3.  Basis for classification  -  Organism that "go to war"

    4.  Basis for division  -  "battles between armies of the same or closely related species"

    5.  Forms of warfare  -

        A.  What are they?

    1. Predatism or predation
    2. Occasional defence and occasional attack
    3. "Habitual warfare between closely allied species"
    4. "Battles between different nests of the same species"

        B.  Why this order?  Answers may vary.  Perhaps the order is predicated upon a perception of intensity of biological imperatives (food, continuance of the gene pool, territory), and the closeness of the species of the combatants.

    6.  While Huxley does not specifically show it in this paragraph, we could read this as a condemnation of human warfare.  The moral justification for warfare in ants (Yes, I know that is a bit of a stretch and implies an anthropic (also "anthropical") moral sensibility in ants) appears to lessen as the biological imperative lessens and the closeness of the species increases.


     Workshop and Reflection  Regular