Skip to main content

# 5.6: Definition

We are used to thinking of definition in terms of the dictionary or some other resource. If we are asked to define something, we usually “look it up.” For the definition you are about to write, however, you are the authority. You do not look anything up. You define according to principles of definition, but you are the author of the definition.

Parts of a definition:

• Formal re-definition
• History
• Context
• Sounds
• Similar things
• Function
• Meaning

## 1. A Formal Re-definition

This will be the first sentence of your definition.

The first thing to do is decide how to “formally” define (actually, re-define) your object (remember, this is a definition of your object as you see it). When we call this part of your definition “formal” it does not refer to its level of formality; rather, it is formal in the sense that it has a consistent “form.” A formal definition is one that contains three specific parts: the name of the object, what category of things it belongs in, and how your object is different from other things in that same category. In other words, a formal definition has specific parts:

1. the term itself
2. the class of things that the term falls into
3. how that term is different from other things in the same class

A simple example of this formula is this:

 term class differences in class a "sandal" is a type of "shoe" that "has open toes and straps"

You can also write a formal definition pattern this way:

A ____________ is a type of ____________ that _____________.

OR

A sandal is a type of shoe that has open toes and straps.

In other words, “sandal” falls into the class “shoe,” but is different from other shoes in that it “has open toes and straps.”

Re-define your object:

Notice, however, the above definition of "sandal" is the definition you would expect to find in the dictionary. Remember that you have the authority to define your terms. To do this, you simply put the term into a different class and tell how the term differs from items in THAT class. For example, I could say that a “sandal” is a type of "weapon" that "may be used on insects." I could also say that a "sandal" is a type of "accessory" that is "worn in the summer." Note that I can choose the class that I want the term to fall into. Just remember that the class you put the term into should be credible to the reader.

Note too that the transitions I use are consistent:

_________ is a type of ________ that ___________.

The transition phrases are not confined to these exact words, but they are useful in staying focused on the parts of a formal definition. What we are really doing is re-defining.

$\text{Term + Class + Differences}$

Using this formula, I may define "candle" (my object) by answering the following questions:

1. What kind of thing or place is it?
2. To what larger class of things does it belong?
3. How is it different from other things in that class? (Or what parts can it be divided into?)

1. What kind of thing or place is it?

Use the name of your object or place as the “term” to be defined. I will define (actually redefine) the word candle.

2. To what larger class of things does it belong?

Classify your object or place in the way you think about it for this essay. How do I classify my candle? I do not classify it as a “type of lighting device made of wax with a wick in it.” That is the definition I would find in a dictionary.

How do I think of my candle? I think of it as a reminder of my friend; that is what makes it special to me. So I will classify the candle as a reminder.

3. How is it different from other things in that class? (Or what parts can it be divided into?)

In other words, how is my candle different from other kinds of reminders? I rarely take a match to any of the reminders I can think of. It has a connection to the person who gave it to me and so I think of her. No other reminder lights my room when I think of her. This is how it is different.

Example $$\PageIndex{1}$$:

Put together with transitions, here is my example formal definition for "candle:"

The candle is a kind of reminder that not only lets me think of my friend when I see it, but also lights my room when I think of her.

## 2. History

In one to three statements, what is a history of your place or object as reclassified? In other words, what is your history with the object as you have reclassified it? To use my example, the question/ answer could be:

Example $$\PageIndex{2}$$:

What is my history with the candle (as a reminder)?

Every time I clean my room, or get dressed, or pass by, or go to bed, or wake up in the morning, I see the candle and think of my friend. At times, I just light it for a few minutes, and I am reminded of her presence.

## 3. Context

In one to three statements, what is the context of my object as reclassified? In other words, how does the object fit into the world, or my world, as reclassified? For me:

Example $$\PageIndex{3}$$:

How does the candle fit in (as a reminder)?

I am bombarded with meeting reminders, “to do” lists, alarms, sticky notes, deadlines, requests, and on and on. My candle is the only reminder I have that slows me down and lets me think of her.

## 4. Sounds

What sounds are associated with the object as reclassified?

Example $$\PageIndex{4}$$:

As a reminder of my friend, what sounds are associated with the candle?

The silent burning of the candle reminds me of her quiet demeanor, the long silences that followed our fights, and the suddenness with which her life was snuffed out.

## 5. Similar Things

What are some things that have similar characteristics to my object as reclassified?

Example $$\PageIndex{5}$$:

As a reminder of my friend, what are some similar things?

Like an old photograph, or stories told by friends, or places we met, or the smell of barberry and cinnamon, my candle reminds me of the time we were together.

## 6. Function

As reclassified, how does my object function (what does it do as reclassified)?

Example $$\PageIndex{6}$$:

As a reminder of my friend, what does the candle do?

The candle only burns when I light it once a year – on the day I lost her.

## 7. Meaning

As reclassified, what meaning do I give the object?

Example $$\PageIndex{7}$$:

As a reminder of my friend, what does the candle mean to me?

To me, the candle signifies a life lived quietly, resolutely, but with a burning passion for living in the moment.

Here are the example sentences from above, put together:

Example $$\PageIndex{8}$$: draft

The candle is a kind of reminder that not only lets me think of my friend when I see it, but also lights my room when I think of her. Every time I clean my room, or get dressed, or pass by, or go to bed, or wake up in the morning, I see the candle and think of my friend. At times, I just light it for a few minutes, and I am reminded of her presence. I am bombarded with meeting reminders, “to do” lists, alarms, sticky notes, deadlines, requests, and on and on. My candle is the only reminder I have that slows me down and lets me think of her. The silent burning of the candle reminds me of her quiet demeanor, the long silences that followed our fights, and the suddenness with which her life was snuffed out. Like an old photograph, or stories told by friends, or places we met, or the smell of barberry and cinnamon, my candle reminds me of the time we were together. The candle only burns when I light it once a year – on the day I lost her. To me, the candle signifies a life lived quietly, resolutely, but with a burning passion for living in the moment.

You may define any object or place this way. When you have a definition constructed, you may add it to the other elements in your personal writing. When you finish ALL the elements, you may then arrange elements for greatest effect.

• Was this article helpful?