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Humanities Libertexts

1.7: Definition

  • Page ID
    7268
  • Overview

    Look at your claim/proposal statement at the end of your Introduction. Highlight or underline all key words in that statement. There are three things to keep in mind when defining the key terms in your claim statement. Your definition draft will consist of these three elements:

    Specialized Terms

    First, define for the reader any specialized terms or jargon. A specialized term is one that is understood by a specialized group of people in a particular way. Specialized terms are frequently more than one word, like “learning styles.” Use an expert, glossary, or some resource other than a general dictionary for these terms. A quick way to find definitions for a word or phrase without looking in a dictionary is to type the following into Google or some other search engine:

    Define:[specialized term]

    This will get you a list of definitions from specialized websites. You should define at least one key specialized term from your claim statement.

    Common/Ambiguous Terms

    Second, define any terms that may be ambiguous (“ambiguous” means a common term that may be taken a number of ways) or common (these are usually a single, everyday word, like “teach” or “writing”) so a reader may understand them in the same way you do. You must respectfully teach the reader the exact sense of the words you wish to use. Use the best possible dictionary available (one with etymologies). If the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is available, use it – it is the best one in existence.

    One term is enough here, so explore the definitions of several key terms carefully before choosing one.

    Formal Re-Definition – Re-define Common/Ambiguous Term

    Third, re-define the ambiguous term in the way you want it defined (in your own words) but in a “formal” definition. You are the author of this project, and as such, you have the authority to define ambiguous words, within reason, in the way you want to use them, particularly if they may be understood in different ways.

    Most Common Question: “What is the difference between ‘specialized’ and ‘common’ terms?”

    Specialized terms are words, frequently more than one word at a time, that cannot be defined in a general dictionary, like “stream of consciousness;” if you look up “stream,” then “consciousness,” you still will not know what the phrase means as a term. In the case of this phrase, you will probably have to ask a literature teacher or literary critic. Specialized terms call for specialized sources.

    Common/ambiguous terms are those terms most of us are familiar with that are frequently one word, like “teacher;” everyone knows what a “teacher” is. However, you may want people to think of “teacher” in a particular way.

    You can describe a teacher as “coach,” “disciplinarian,” “leader,” “coordinator,” “facilitator,” or any number of somewhat different senses of the word. It is important for you to define the word (or present a definition) that most closely resembles the way you want the word used. In other words, you want to take away some of the ambiguity (multiple meanings at the same time) of your common terms.

    checklist

    1. Draft Checklist:

    ___Identify one specialized term and one common/ambiguous term from claim

    ___Find definition(s) for the specialized term (not from dictionary)

    ___Find definition(s) for the common term (from OED)

    ___Etymology for common term

    ___Antonyms, synonyms, or examples for common term

    ___Re-define common term by re-classifying in a formal definition

    Prompts

    Write a definition by answering the prompts below. Think about each one carefully. If you need examples or further explanation, refer to the explanation of each in the Tutorial. Then type an answer to each prompt.

    checklist

    2. Prompts from Draft Checklist:

    1. What are a key term in my claim statement or thesis from a specialized vocabulary and a key term from a common vocabulary?
    2. How does a resource (other than the dictionary) define the specialized term or phrase?
    3. What common term in my claim needs clarification?
    4. What different definitions of the common term are in the dictionary?
    5. What different senses of the term existed in the past (what is its etymology) from the dictionary?
    6. What are some antonyms, synonyms, or examples of the way the term is used from the dictionary?
    7. How do I re-define the common term using a formal definition?

    Template/Draft

    Template/Draft created from prompts:

    Definition

    What do people mean by “composition” and “elements of composition?” The term “elements of composition” is one familiar to many English teachers. Most English teachers understand the “elements of composition” to be words, sentences, and paragraphs. What “makes up” an essay, according to them, is skillfully crafted sentences that perform specific functions. These sentences are elements of paragraphs that themselves perform certain functions and must be crafted or arranged in specific ways according to specific rules.

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines “composition” as “the arrangement of elements” in a given work (733). The word “composition” is associated with the word “compose” which comes from the French compound com- “together” and poser- “to place” or to “put down. “Compose” originally meant “to place together.” “Composition” in Latin meant “of action.” Over time the two words (which interestingly enough have “no connection in origin”) came to be “naturally associated” with each other (OED 733-35). The original meaning of these words taken together then is “the act of placing together.”

    The first recorded use of the word in English occurred circa 1386, when Chaucer used it in “The Squire's Tale” when he referred to the “composiciouns/Of anglis and of slye reflexions,” meaning the arrangement of angles in a skillful manner (Fisher 191). The same sense emerged in Dryden's 1695 use of the word in the following sentence: “In the composition of a picture the painter is to take care that nothing enter into it which is not proper ... to the subject” (OED 736). These examples seem to reflect the original French and Latin senses of this word. This last definition seems to be the narrow definition applied to composition courses today. I hope to go back to the original sense of the word and apply it here in this paper.

    So "composition," as used throughout this essay, is a kind of art that focuses on the arrangement or combination of various writing elements (or parts) into an effective essay (or whole). In this essay, “elements of composition” are parts of an essay rather than parts of written language or grammar. Instead of “paragraphs,” there are “descriptions,” or “anecdotes,” or “definitions,” or “analyses,” and so on.

    Note

    Words defined are in quotation marks (A “teacher” is defined as …) and all quoted definitions are in quotation marks. Note, too, that punctuation at the end of the sentence goes inside quotation marks.

    Tutorial

    How to answer the prompts

    Prompt 1

    What are a key term in my claim statement or thesis from a specialized vocabulary and a key term from a common vocabulary?

    Choose any term or word that you wish to clarify in your claim statement at the end of the Introduction. This should be a word or words that may be misunderstood or that have a range of meanings or that may be taken differently by different people. You should use the best dictionary you can find to find the history and meanings that you want to use for your own. Here is my claim again:

    Teachers should teach essays by putting more emphasis on elements of composition and how to arrange those elements in an essay.

    Note that the word that seems to be key to understanding what I mean is probably “composition.” Note too that I will probably end up defining “elements,” and I may take the words “elements of composition” as a specialized term as well. So two key terms are “composition” and “elements of composition.”

    Here is an example of how I express to the reader which words I want to define and redefine:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    I want to clarify what I mean by “composition” and “elements of composition.”

    (Note how quotation marks are positioned)

    Prompt 2

    How does a resource (other than the dictionary) define the specialized term or phrase?

    These are terms that are specific to a discipline or a group of people. They may be jargon or made up terms, and they may mean something different from what we expect. All you have to do to answer this question is to identify the term as a specialized one. They tend to have more than one word. Do not use a general dictionary or other source to answer this question; ask an expert or consult a specialized dictionary, glossary, or other specialized source.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    The term “elements of composition” is one familiar to many English teachers.

    Specialized terms are words, or groups of words, that have a specific meaning to a specific group of people. For those words, I simply look them up in a source published by that group of people, or, if one of those people is available, I ask him or her to define it for me.

    1. Choose a term that may be defined or understood in a specialized way.
    2. Find a resource for that specialized sense of the term.
    3. Record the definition.

    I choose the term "elements of composition" from my claim. I ask English teachers how they define that term (or look the term up in a specialized glossary or specialized dictionary). I synthesize their answers into a faithful summary of their definitions.

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\):

    Most English teachers understand the “elements of composition” to be words, sentences, and paragraphs. What “makes up” an essay, according to them, is skillfully crafted sentences that perform specific functions. These sentences are elements of paragraphs that themselves perform certain functions and must be crafted or arranged in specific ways according to specific rules.

    Prompt 3

    What common term in my claim needs clarification?

    These are words that people are familiar with, and use in everyday conversation, or consider “common knowledge.” However, they may be key to understanding your claim, and you don’t want them misunderstood. These words may have a range of definitions, or may simply be commonly understood in a way that you do not want to use them.

    Look at the words you chose. Address specialized terms above. If any words are not specialized, they may be common or ambiguous terms. For those terms, indicate which one or ones you will define.

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\):

    The word “composition” is used in many ways by many different people.

    Prompt 4

    What different definitions of the common term are in the dictionary?

    Look up one of the ambiguous or common words you chose in the dictionary. Look at each definition of the word. Print a copy of the page or pages where your word appears. Then carefully read through the definitions and the notations of when and where they appeared in our language. Underline any information, quotes, dates, or definitions that emphasize or underscore the sense of the word AS YOU INTEND TO USE IT.

    Example \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    The word “composition” is associated with the word “compose” which comes from the French compound com- “together” and poser- “to place” or to “put down.” “Compose” originally meant, “to place together.” “Composition” in Latin meant “of action.” Over time the two words (which interestingly enough have “no connection in origin”) came to be “naturally associated” with each other (OED 733-35). The original meaning of these words taken together then is “the act of placing together.”

    Prompt 5

    What different senses of the term existed in the past (what is its etymology) from the dictionary?

    The etymology of a word frequently appears within the brackets at the beginning of the definition. The etymology may use abbreviations, which may be located in the front of the dictionary. You must decipher the etymology and put it into an English sentence before going to the next question.

    Example \(\PageIndex{6}\):

    The first recorded use of the word in English occurred circa 1386, when Chaucer used it in “The Squire's Tale” when he referred to the “composiciouns/ Of anglis and of slye reflexions,” meaning the arrangement of angles in a skillful manner (Fisher 191). The same sense emerged in Dryden's 1695 use of the word in the following sentence: “In the composition of a picture the painter is to take care that nothing enter into it which is not proper ... to the subject” (OED 736). These examples seem to reflect the original French and Latin senses of this word. This last definition seems to be the narrow definition applied to composition courses today. I hope to go back to the original sense of the word and apply it here in this paper.

    Prompt 6

    What are some antonyms, synonyms, or examples of the way the term is used from the dictionary?

    Look for terms that mean the opposite of your term. List and explain why it is important for me to know what its opposites are. Also, list words that mean nearly the same thing or the same thing, IN THE WAY YOU WANT THE TERM UNDERSTOOD.

    Most Common Question: “What do I have to remember to do when quoting something from the dictionary?”

    Several picky yet important “conventions” that APA style demands. First, when you quote something from the dictionary (or anywhere for that matter), incorporate the quote into your own sentence. For example, this is NOT correct:

    “To instruct and guide.”

    That sentence is not incorporated into a sentence. The following is:

    According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “teach” means “to instruct and guide.”

    Note that “incorporated” also means that the quote fits the grammar of the sentence; I can read the sentence, and it makes grammatical sense, whether the quotation marks are there or not. Also, note that the title of the dictionary is underlined. I should also add where I found this definition in the dictionary:

    According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “teach” means “to instruct and guide” (977).

    Note, too, that when we put a page number at the end of a quote the period moves from inside the quotation marks to outside the parentheses.

     Prompt 7

    How do I re-define a common or ambiguous term as a formal definition?

    This part of your definition is called a “formal” definition because it has a 3-part “form” to it. It does not mean it is “formal” in the sense that it is “not informal.”Redefine each term as needed in a formal definition, in exactly the way you wish that term defined, using your own words and/or the words from the dictionary.

    Formula for formal definitions

    A formal definition is a term classified by differences. 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

    OR:

    $$\text{Term + Classification - Differences}\; = \text{Formal Definition}$$

    A simple example of this formula is this:

    Example \(\PageIndex{7}\):

    1. term = a "sandal"
    2. class = is a type of "shoe"
    3. differences in class = that "has open toes and straps"

    OR:

    A _________is a type of __________that ___________.

    Example \(\PageIndex{8}\):

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

    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.

    Example \(\PageIndex{9}\):

    For example, instead of:

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

    I could say:

    A sandal is a type of weapon that may be used on insects.

    OR:

    A sandal is a type of accessory that is worn in the summer.

    OR:

    A sandal is a type of reminder that brings the beach to mind.

    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.

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

    Example \(\PageIndex{10}\):

    So "composition," as I will be using the term throughout this essay, is a kind of art that focuses on the arrangement or combination of various writing elements (or parts) into an effective essay (or whole).

    Note that all punctuation marks go inside quotation marks.

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