By defining a term' is here meant 'expressing an equivalent meaning in other and appropriate terms which are more precise than the term defined'

There are many ways of explaining the usage of a term, some of which are non-verbal (or 'ostensive definitions') and some of which are verbal or use other symbols. Ostensive definitions are ways of clarifying meaning by showing it through actions of various sorts such as pointing at things, drawing them, illustrating them by diagrams and so on. This is not included under what is here called 'defining a term' for this concentrates on verbal definitions of the written sort. Of these three general types are distinguished here. The first type (essential) is not a genuine definition, strictly or scientifically viewed.
Most written definitions have the following logical parts:-

The term being defined + a verb or verbal phrase which relates it to + the defining term(s)

Its type is decided by the nature of the verb or verbal phrase - hereafter termed the 'copula' - which relates the defined and defining terms, A simple example illustrates this:-
Eg: 'Laudabilis' means the same as 'of or above the median grade'.

 term defined + copula + defining terms

(Note: definitions usually occur in some context so that the above order is reversed, or additional phrases are included that are not part of the above structure. The above three parts are basic to a clear and explicitly-stated definition).

An 'essential definition' is 'a statement about certain properties that characterise some concept, thing, class or state of affairs about which a term is used.

Eg) 'Fascism' is 'the systematisation of violence'.

The statement seems to be about fascism itself, not about the term but about either the concept of fascism or some general state of affairs. In answer to a question about the meaning of the term 'fascism' however, it would then not be an essential definition but a conventional one (see below). As the expression stands on its own it does not make clear that it could be a definition of the meaning of the term 'fascism'.

Taken thus at face value it only makes an assertion as to what fascism is, referring to the concept of fascism or the states of affairs it covers. Thus it is judged to be an essential definition.
The context and situation in which definitions occur will often make clear whether or not a definition is essential, conventional or prescriptive. Otherwise one can .judge only by the actual terms used in the copula.

A 'conventional definition' means 'a statement of one common usage or meaning of a term or expression

Eg) The term 'pressure' is commonly used to mean 'exertion of continuous force'.
The statement is about conventional usage, about the meaning commonly attached to the term. It is in fact a dictionary definition (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). All dictionaries almost invariably contain only conventional definitions.

A conventional definition can be true or false, depending upon whether people use (or have used) the term in the way defined. This is established by linguistic research including on-the-spot recording, text analysis and comparison etc.

It is not always easy to decide whether a conventional definition is true or false, nor whether it is current or obsolete. Conventional definitions are indispensable, of course, as they provide access to what standards of shared verbal meaning there are and also make translation between languages possible.

By 'prescriptive definition' will here be meant 'a statement which sets the meaning of a term or expression as it is to be used and understood in some context or for some situations

Eg) 'Practical value' will in the following thesis be used only to refer to 'a goal that people strive to reach through action'.

This statement is one of future intention of usage and not of past or present conventional usage. Even though the term 'practical value' may have been used in the same sense by others before this definition was made, the definition's copula makes it quite clear that a rule of usage is being prescribed in the context of 'the following thesis'. If the author of the thesis used the term 'practical value' in some quite other sense later on, one would say the rule was broken.

Any statement that makes a prescriptive definition will be setting a future rule of usage for the term or expression defined. Therefore such statements can never be true nor can they be false statements, just as one could not say that a rule or regulation is 'true' or 'false'. This distinction is sometimes helpful in deciding whether a definition is of prescriptive type or of the other sorts. The three other sorts of definition exemplified here always make statements that can in principle be judged as making either true or false assertions. Usually, however, the context and/or communication situation in which the definition is made will help one decide whether it is prescriptive or otherwise.

Prescriptive definitions are invaluable to all accurate uses of language in scientific, legal and philosophical literature. They provide precise interpretations of a term and can be stated at length once in a book, afterwards using only the term itself for the sake of brevity or conciseness. This is most obvious in the axiomatic definitions upon which all mathematical reasoning is based, where great precision and conciseness are thus attained.

Distinguishing between the three types of definition in practice.

Firstly, since the definitions of our three types of definitions are themselves not mutually-exclusive (i.e. do not constitute three fully-distinct categories). examples of definitions may be difficult to identify as to their types. As will become evident. definitions can seldom if ever be perfect from the logical and scientific viewpoints, and this applies with force to definitions about language, which is such a flexible and Innovative medium to discuss with precision.

Secondly, not all possible types of definition are exhausted by the three given types. Logicians also speak of definitions as being either 'extensive' or 'intensive', as 'enumerative', 'operational', 'genetic' and either 'analytic' or 'synthetic'. Such types are not discussed here since they are basically of a logical rather than of a semantical nature.

Third, difficulty arises with varying degrees of explicitness or implicitness of the defining statement in question. In practice one may, as noted, need to refer to the wider verbal context or the communication situation in order to decide whether the definition involved functions as essential, conventional or prescriptive. The wider context may make explicit - or otherwise make evident - that the defining statement itself is intended to function in a different way than its wording may suggest.

To make a reasoned judgement in such cases, the following steps may be followed:-

1) Identify the copula and consider how it may be interpreted when 'abstracted' from the context of the defining statement. For example, the terms ' is', ' consists in', ' characterises', 'proves to be', 'amounts to the same as', and others like these will tend to function as copulas in essential definitions, not conventional or prescriptive ones. Conventional definitions are frequently characterised by copulas that make a fairly explicit reference to language or meaning. For example, the copulas 'means', 'is usually understood to signify', 'is commonly called', 'amounts in correct English to the same as' and so on clearly refer to conventional usage. Prescriptive definitions have copulas that set or prescribe a usage, such as 'By x we shall hereafter mean y', 'shall herewith be taken to mean', and 'The interpretation of x we find most practical for use in this book is y'.

2) Consider whether the defining terms are in accordance with current usage. If so the definition may be a true conventional one. If not in accordance with common usage, it may be either essential, prescriptive, or a false conventional definition. For example:-
'Everyone knows that integrity means, in plain English, more than just keeping up an honest front''.

The copula (Everyone knows that x in plain English means y) is clearly of the conventional type. Yet the defining terms are hardly a dictionary definition of 'integrity'. This leaves open the possibility that it may be either essential or false conventional. The statement does refer to certain properties that characterise the concept of integrity, so it can be essential. Yet one may also argue that it is a false conventional definition. As the two types are not mutually-exclusive, we have here a borderline case that could equally well be either, as far as we can judge. That it cannot be prescriptive follows from the fact that it can be judged either true or false, at least.

3) Consider how explicit or implicit the defining statement is comparing it with the wider context or the communication situation where possible.
For example:- "In field-work on the problem of social alienation we found that we needed a clearly delimited meaning for the term. We considered it most fruitful to conceive social alienation as being the inability of individuals to adopt certain key norms and behavior patterns prevalent in the society in which they were living at the time".

Judging by the double-underlined sentence alone (i.e. the defining statement the definition appears to be essential. The copula ('We considered it most fruitful to conceive x as being y') refers to the concept of social alienation and not to the term itself. It also refers to certain properties characterising that concept. However, the wider context qualifies this view decisively, for the definition is clearly intended to function as a prescription - a rule set for limiting the meaning in field-work and in the report in which it occurs. So the actual definition statement alone does not make this explicit. Only the context brings out the implicit understanding that a rule of future usage is being set.

The practical purposes of identifying types of definition.

The ability to identify the nature of a definition is a step towards being able to formulate definitions clearly as such for whatever purpose they are intended. Definitions are made for the sake of clarity and effective communication, therefore also their communicative; purpose must be clearly indicated by their formal expression. Further, the exercise of identifying eases of these types of definition itself is an object lesson in the intricacies of language and applying a rule (i.e. a rule of definition) to particular cases of language usage.

Some requirements for making a definition effective.

Since the purposes in making definitions vary greatly in themselves and since definition conventions vary from field to field - as do also the scientific or political requirements - no exhaustive study of the methods of arriving at effective definitions can be made. for the purposes of language communication however. a number of useful requirements of effective communication in definitions can prove instructive. Definitions are almost always designed for some fairly-circumscribable purposes or communication situations, so their communicational efficiency will depend upon those circumstances.

The following requirements are exemplified by attempted definitions that fail to meet each requirement. The lack of efficient communication is' more instructive than the converse in many oases:-

Requirement 1: The definition as a whole ought to have a fruitful purpose in the relevant communication situation.
The introduction of a definition into a debate, a book or a scientific exposition should function to improve communication, where necessary by clarifying the issue, the arguments involved or the theory being explained or applied.
Being the most general and overall requirement of good definition, this is exemplified under the other requirements:

Requirement 2: The definition should not be circular.
This can occur if words of the defined term or expression which need clarification are used again in the defining term or expression,
Eg) By 'under-developed countries' will hers be understood
'countries which have not developed as much as other countries'.

This may give some people the illusion of correct explanation of the term, but in fact it says nothing that is not already said by the defined term.
Circularity also arises where alternative words which are no more precise than those included in the defined term are used in the defining term.
Eg) By 'political freedom' will be understood 'the ability to choose politically'.

The word 'freedom' is substituted by 'the ability to choose', which is hardly more precise in the context above. (Note: words like 'the', 'of' etc. need no defining, so can occur in both the defined and the defining terms)

Requirement 3: The defining terms should preferably be more precise than that defined.
In the case of circularity above, the defining terms are not more precise than the defined term. They should not be less precise, of course, but may sometimes pass if equally precise. Optimally, they should be more precise.
Requirement 2 is not met in the following example:-
Eg) 'Computers' means 'those electrical machines that can carry out tasks to save labour'.

If this definition were offered to trainees beginning a course on computers it would doubtless tell them less than they already knew about the meaning of the term ' computer'. The defining terms include all labour-saving electrical machines of which there are many that are not computers (washing machines, vacuum cleaners etc" etc.), therefore this is generally less precise than the term 'computer'. Further, there are computers which can hardly be called labour-saving devices, such as the 'space invaders' or chess players, A large section of the public already possess mini-computers and know that they can perform digital operations like addition, multiplication and so on. Therefore the definition given would probably be less precise for a majority of public audiences in the industrialised countries.

The relative precision of the defined tern and defining terms can be illustrated by the use of Venn's diagram:

Requirement 4: The defining terms should be appropriate to the communication situation involved.
In summary of the principle of appropriateness, the terms used (for defining) should be cognitive - not emotive -. They should not be obscure to communicators likely to be involved and there should be no misuse of grammar, punctuation or syntax.
Eg) In a T.V. panel discussion for popular viewing the chairman defines the topic 'sexuality' as 'that area of human intercourse where polymorphous perversity causes the greatest divergence between erotic Phantasie and the reality principle'. Few would understand as much by the defining terms as they do by the defined term 'sexuality'. so the definition is obscure. Certain audiences may also find the terms 'perversity' and 'erotic-Phantasie' to be emotively inappropriate too, particularly if they do not know them as technical terms in Freudian theory.
Eg) A BBC radio newsreader announced: "The so-called Irish Republican Army is but a group of murderers at present operating in the United Kingdom".

The defining terms 'so-called', 'murderers' and 'operating in the United Kingdom' may all be emotive in effect upon listeners. 'So-called' is an epithet that tends to trivialise the proper noun it qualifies in this context, influencing listeners to the view that the I.R.A. is just a name without a substantial organisation behind it. 'Murderers' - a term used, incidentally, by a British Prime Minister of I.R.A. members - suppresses the fact that the agents are terrorists with political grievances and goals too. 'Murderer' is a highly emotive term and is legally only: usable of those convicted of pre-meditated murder. In the example it is applied very generally to all I.E.A. members. Further, 'operating in the United Kingdom' would be emotive to Irish listeners who regard British rule in Northern Ireland as historically illegitimate.

Requirement 5: The defining terms should not be too inconcise.

This is usually the case where the definition is very long and detailed so that it is hard to recollect properly when the defined term is used. Verbal simplicity and economy are the goals.
Eg) Consider a lecturer who writes the word 'idealist' on a blackboard and says it is defined as the theory held by those who regard ideas as more essential to existence than the entities we sense as material and substantial in that one should strive to realise such ideas as ideals to impose on physical existence'.

The audience might understand the assertion without being able to remember the expression due to its inconciseness, or they may not grasp it fully.

Requirement 6: The defining terms should not be biased against standpoints relevant to an issue involved.

This requirement applies specifically to situations when the views of various parties to a discussion or debate are involved. It is a special case of requiring expressions to be appropriate.
Eg) A commentator on a documentary film defines 'the neutron bomb' as 'the nuclear weapon in France's and the USA's s arsenals that has the advantage of reducing population without destroying property'. In this context 'advantage' would be clearly emotively in favour of the bomb, while 'reducing population', though it is a neutral term usually, would also seem a toned down version of 'destroying people' so as to favour the bomb. That only France and the USA are referred to is not, at the time of writing, a bias against these Western powers, for so far there is no evidence that any other nations are developing it.

Eg) Suppose a debate is held between members of the U.S. Senate on world trade policy and the leader of the debate defines 'international interests' as 'the right of countries dependent for raw material and labour from other nations to ensure that these will be available, by military action if necessary".

This definition favours certain national interests, those of the rich industrial military powers, rather than international interests of all nations. This is a clear case of biased 'begging the question, because the issues involved in world trade policy are narrowed down to exclude standpoints relevant to the issue from the viewpoint of developing countries.

Requirement 7: Where possible, the defining terms should be operational. i.e. make clear how (by which methods) actual instances are either to be included under or excluded from the definition in practical application.

This requirement is more of a scientific ideal than a semantic necessity. Yet making a definition operational give both scientific applicability/accuracy and semantic efficiency of communication. An operational definition that proves scientifically fruitful will necessarily be very precise, for it makes clear which instances the definition covers, which it does not and - ideally - it leaves no borderline cases. In practice, operational definitions that fulfill this ideal are most infrequent. Nor are they always desirable as such, for definitions that clarify, say, the motion of a debate, ought not to be so precise and scientifically-indisputable as to leave no room for any purposeful exchange of views. Though the ideal of operationality was first forwarded by a physicist, the problems it brings with it in physics and other natural sciences has led to a general rejection of its fruitfulness. In the social sciences, however, it is still regarded as a fruitful ideal as the example below partially demonstrates.

Making a definition that is 'operational. is to make it suitable for precise empirical research. Strictly scientific definitions are largely of the operational sort and are usually only arrived at after preliminary observations of the field to be studied. Operationality is often achieved by the conceptual division of a set of phenomena, objects, events and so on into two or more classes so that what does not fall under the one class must fall under another class.

Eg) Suppose a social scientist is studying religious behaviour in a particular geographical area. Firstly the different religions likely to be adhered to or practiced in that area must be established. An exact way of distinguishing each religion from the other must be arrived at on the basis of previous knowledge. Suppose 'Christian. be defined as 'one who practices the teachings of Jesus' and 'Buddhist' as 'one who practices the teachings of Buddha'. These would not be operational terms on the above definition, for the problem still remains as how to distinguish which individuals practice the teachings of Christ or Buddha. In other words, it must be possible clearly to distinguish which instances (in this case, individuals) are to be included under the tern 'Christian' and which under 'Buddhist', This might be solved by defining 'Christian' as 'those who attend any Protestant, Roman Catholic or Methodist places of worship at least twice each year', provided that the necessary information can be obtained for each individual.

The defined term is clear in that those who do not attend any of these places of worship, or who do so less than twice a year are excluded from the definition of Christian, (it is quite another matter whether or not this definition gives a very satisfactory way of deciding what a Christian is). A similar definition for Buddhists, however, would be rather futile as Buddhism's basic tenets do not stipulate regular attendance at temples. In this case perhaps the definition 'those who profess adherence to the teachings of Buddha' might serve. Thereby those who do not profess it, when questioned, would not be regarded as Buddhist.

Naturally, the type of definition settled for will depend in each case on the purposes of the research and what is being sought established as well as the availability of relevant information. In order to make the two definitions of 'Christian' and 'Buddhist' operational for a questionnaire or interview survey, however, they would have to be 'mutually exclusive'. This is to say that they should be defined in such a way that there are no individuals who could be classed both as a Buddhist and as a Christian. The above definitions given do not satisfy this requirement in principle, even though they may do so in practice (i.e. when used in actual representative interviews etc.). This is so even though both definitions are regarded to be operational when taken independently. Finally, when stated correctly and in full, operational definitions will usually have the form and function of a prescriptive definition.

Demonstration exercise in attempted definition

So as to bring the above requirements together in a practical case which involves the progressive development of a fairly adequate definition from the viewpoint of efficient communication, the following exercise is worked through. Note that several requirements can be unfulfilled simultaneously in a definition statement.

Question: Define the term 'genuine pay increase' in a way that would be suitable to a pertinent party political debate on the subject before an election in any Western European constitutional democracy,
Attempt 1: A 'genuine pay increase' can be said to occur 'whenever an employee gets more pay in his hand than the wages previously received for the same amount of work'.

Criticism of attempt 1:-
a) A crucial word 'pay' in the term to be defined is also used in the defining term which makes the definition circular. (Requirement 2)

b) Use of the word 'his' biases the definition towards men workers, women's pay increases thus not being included in the definition, (Requirement 6)

c) The term 'in his hand' is vague because the actual money received in cash by an employee may vary considerably from the wages. (Contribution to funds, direct taxation, insurance premiums and other incidentals may be subtracted at source). Thus the defining term is hardly more precise than that to be defined, (Requirement 3).

d) The use of 'pay in his hand' together with 'the wages' creates inclarity (Requirement 3) and involves an unnecessary repetition of similar concept, thus malting the defining term too inconcise. (Requirement 5)

e) The definition fails to account for monetary inflation or rising prices, possible changes in the level of taxation and other factors reducing the value of an income. It thus has a bias against the employee in not making clear how a genuine pay increase must be accounted for. (Requirement 6)

f) The term 'previously' is too vague. 'Directly prior to the increase' would remove the possibility of comparisons with pay of several years previously. (Requirement 3)

Attempt 2: A 'genuine pay increase' can be said to occur 'whenever on the average all employees receive a greater total in yearly earnings to spend than in the year preceding the pay increase'.
Criticism of attempt 2:-

a) This definition avoids the errors of the first attempt except in that it does not allow for inflation or rising prices. A greater total in yearly earnings to spend is not necessarily an increase if prices have rocketed, meanwhile, (Requirement 6), (as tax is deducted at source from most employees' incomes, this definition does take account of possible rises in taxation).

b) Average yearly earnings for all employees can rise due to increased amounts of overtime or greater productivity to achieve bonus or piece-rate payments. Therefore this definition is biased against the employees' likely standpoint, (Requirement 6).

Attempt 3: A 'genuine pay increase' can be said to occur 'whenever all employees concerned are given greater overall yearly financial compensation for the same work than in the year prior to the increase, including as part of the increase full compensation for the rate of inflation and any increased taxation in that period.

Criticism of attempt 3:-
This definition avoids the pitfalls of the two previous attempts. It is precise enough to form the basis of a fair debate founded on facts yet it does not cover all the details of the matter. This would make the definition so lengthy and complex as probably to be ineffective in the given communication situation.


Consider the following statement from the introduction to an election debate:
"If we say that there is unemployment we mean that about two per cent of all the nation's employees are without regular jobs."
a) Discuss what sort of definition you consider the above expression to be, giving reasons.
b) State any weaknesses you consider the expression to have as a definition of the subject of a general political debate on unemployment in this country.
c) Suggest one set of alternative defining terms to the above definition.

2) Consider the following exchange of views upon the statement:
'There is no religious freedom in this country.'
A: There is religious freedom in this country "because everyone has the personal liberty to believe exactly what one pleases.
B: But by 'religious freedom' we usually mean the legal guarantee that the practice of any religion will be tolerated in the society concerned.
C: In lay opinion, by 'religious freedom' we ought to understand the acceptance of all organised religious or atheist sects without social or political discrimination.
a) Discuss whether A makes a definition or not, also what sorts of definition are made by B and C.
b) Which of the above definitions would be most efficient for the basis of a debate in the media on religious tolerance in your country? Give reasons and an analysis of the defining terms in each case.

3) Consider the following exchange of views:
A: In present-day Western countries, 'democracy' usually refers to a form of government by central figures in large-scale party or other interest organisations,
B: No. Democracy is simply the holding of free elections, unlike the undemocratic system of Eastern bloc nations.
C: By the word 'democracy' we ought to think of the organisation of local bodies through which individuals govern only by winning consent, from those whom their policies will most likely affect.

a) Identify the types of definition that each of the above statements may be said to be, giving grounds.
b) Point out weaknesses and advantages in each of the three statements in so far as they may be taken as definitions relevant to the issue of 'political freedom' for an election debate in your country, giving an analysis of the defining terms.

4) Consider the following exchange of views:-
A: As you know, all swans are white.
B: Apparently you haven't heard of the black swans in Australia?
A: They can't be swans, whatever their resemblance to swans in other
respects. I think whiteness ought to be included in the usual meaning of the word 'swan'.
B: You can't change the meaning of a word at will like that. According to the usual meaning, swans are large-bodied, web-footed water birds which are graceful swimmers, strong fliers and have long graceful necks. In this sense, at any rate, there are black swans in Australia.

a) Of what types are the definitions- of 'swan' given by A. and by B.?
b) State these definitions in a way that makes it clear which copulas and which defining terms belong to A's and B's definitions.
c) Explain what requirements an effective definition must fulfil. Make a critical analysis of B's definition of 'swan' as a means of distinguishing swans from other similar creatures.

5) Consider the following exchange of views between three persons, A, B and C:-
A: Norway is not a racialist country.
B: If one usually means that a State in which other races than Norwegians are not equal before the law is a racialist country, then I agree with A.
C: But foreign subjects do not enjoy the same political rights and legal guarantees as Norwegian nationals do, so I disagree with both of you.
A: But by 'racialist country' we ought only to understand a country where discrimination is allowed against individuals of different race, not of different nationality. I still agree with B and not with C.

a) Clearly state the definition made in the above passage and evaluate what types of definition they could be, giving reasons.
b) Evaluate the definitions you have stated for their possible effectiveness in clarifying the issue under discussion, giving reasons.