Kinds and Types of Definitions

Wikipedia defines definition as “the meaning of a word, phrase or other term” Definitions can be categorized into to specific classifications: Intensional definitions and extensional definitions.

Intensional definitions refer to those that attempt to give essence to a term, whereas extensional definitions are those that proceed by listing the objects described by the term.

Another form of definition that you might come across is ostensive definitions, there are the definitions that convey the meaning of a term by pointing out examples. It is possible for a term to have more than one meaning, requiring it to have multiple definitions.

Today, a definition refers to something, most typically expressed in words, aligned to a meaning of a word or a selection of words. The word (or the collection of words) that needs to be defined is known as the definiendum and the words that define it is known as the definiens.

It is important to note, however, that the definiens is not the meaning of the defined word, but rather is something the conveys an identical meaning as that word.

There are several sub-types of definitions, often times they will be specific to a particular field of study or expertise. Such as, lexical definitions (or, the types of definitions you see in a dictionary), demonstrative definitions (or, those that define something through example), and precising definitions (or, those that lessen the vagueness of a word in some special way.)

What Kinds of Definitions  Exist?

In language, particularly in English, a word might have multiple meanings and multiple phrases might be used to describe the same idea or concept. As we converse with others, it is important to clearly understand what the people around you are talking about – the same rule can be applied to your writing.

When your word selection can have multiple meanings, you might find yourself needing to write an extended definition that doesn’t necessarily define the word you are using, but rather explains the concept or idea of it, and can prove to your audience why it’s important that they follow the same train of thought as yourself.

Simply put, a definition is part fact and part opinion.

An extended definition can be crafted from a logical definition, or a notional definition. It follows this formula.

Definiendum = genus + differentia

The term or idea that you are attempting to describe is known as the definiendum. The genus refers to the specific class or category that the definiendum is connected to. The differentia, on the other hand, refers to the set of characteristics that separates the definiendum from other elements in its class.

If you are unable to state your logical definition clearly and concisely in your essay, you should still have a clear understanding of it. This is necessary in order to prevent your idea from inadvertently shifting to an alternate meaning, and so that your audience can easily craft the logical definition based on what you are writing. Unless you are completely confident in your audience’s ability to grasp your intended meaning, you should always state the logical definition outright at the start of your essay.

There are a number of cautionary tips that you should observe whenever you are trying to pen a logical definition. For starters, do not create a circular definition, more specifically, don’t define a word in terms of itself. For example: Athleticism  is the art of being athletic. Definitions created using metaphors are not logical either.

In an extended definition, the logical definition needs to be elaborated using various methods, each of which should clearly convey meaning to your readers. You are responsible for deciding which method you use, and in what manner. Remember to take into consideration what it is exactly that you are defining, along with what information you believe that your reader’s already know and what they might need further proof or convincing of.

If you feel that they will be completely in the dark, or unfamiliar with a particular concept or definition, you will need to consider the best method to explain things to them without further complicating the matter, or creating confusion.

  1. Be as clear about the use or purpose of the definition as you can be. Why do you feel that it is necessary for the reader to share your idea?
  2. Given that differentia is typically a component of a logical definition requiring further clarification, you should focus on developing it through comparison and contrast. You might decide to develop your contrasts through the use of examples. Most often, you will find greater success with one or two well-written examples if you are able to connect them to explanations as to why one example belongs inside the idea that you are defining, and the other on the outside. For example, if you are defining domestic dogs, you might choose to explain why a St Bernard is a domestic dog, why a Wolf is not. They are both members of the canine genus. If you are not able to find a tangible example, you could try to create a hypothetical one, so long as you make it clear to your reader that it is not real.
  3. Demonstrate, using the same technique, how your idea differs from other ideas that might, for one reason or another, be confused with it.
  4. Try to find tests or experiments that can be used to determine why exactly it is that something falls into a certain category or concept – this is called operational definition. When you do, make sure you explain why you chose that specific test and how it works.
  5. Make the idea easier to grasp by explaining its various parts, elements, subtypes, etc.
  6. Use cause and effect to place the idea in relation to other ideas. For example, where does the domestic dog come from? What caused dogs to become domesticated? How does your belief of a domestic dog differ from other domestic pets? How is the idea of fantasy related to the idea of reality?
  7. Explain why and how value is part of the idea or concept. Take into account the common example of art – what defines art? Why do so many people feel that something is not art unless it is high quality and meets their personal preferences?

Whatever method you choose to develop your definition is entirely up to you. There is no single right or wrong way. Typically, a combination of methods will net the greatest result. In any event, you need to ensure that you are writing clearly and concisely so that anyone reading your work will understand the idea that you are defining.

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