The content of definitions

The two previous steps showed that there are many different ways of writing a definition. And as we saw in Week 2 (Steps 2.6 and 2.7), sometimes an image is more effective than a written definition.

There are two key components to any definition: the content (what you want to say about a word) and the wording (the language you use in order to say it). Here we look mainly at content, and consider how much is enough.

The four definitions of ‘cattle’ in the previous step reflect the different types of dictionary in which they appear. Two of these dictionaries are aimed at learners of English – COBUILD mainly at adult learners, Heinemann at schoolchildren – and they both use simple language in their definitions. Notice, too, that the COBUILD definition (‘Cattle are cows and bulls.’) is in the form of a sentence rather than a traditional definition, and in this way it reflects the ‘folk-defining’ style which people tend to use when they explain word meanings to someone else. The other two dictionaries (lexico.com and American Heritage) are aimed at adult native speakers of English, and they use more advanced vocabulary – words like ‘ruminant’, ‘domesticated’, and ‘cloven’. None of the four definitions is necessarily ‘better’ than the others; it’s more a case of each definition being tailored to the dictionary’s target user.

The variation in these and similar definitions can be looked at in two ways:

  • Differences in content (the factual information which the definition provides).

  • Differences in wording (the language and structures used for conveying this information).

Focusing first on content, let’s look at a couple of definitions for the word ‘door’. The first comes from lexico.com.

‘A hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier at the entrance to a building, room, or vehicle, or in the framework of a cupboard’.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (published in 1961) goes into even greater detail, in a 72-word definition which is well-known among dictionary buffs. It mentions that a door may be ‘supported usu. along one side and swinging on pivots and hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion’.

Is it a problem if a dictionary tries to give as much information as possible about what a word like ‘door’ denotes? Yes, for two reasons. First, a definition of this length gives the dictionary user far too much to read – how many people are prepared to wade through several lines of definition to find the answer they’re looking for? Secondly (and this is more important), however much detail you provide in your definition of ‘door’, you can never succeed in identifying every conceivable thing in the real world which might be called a door. For example, suppose a revolving door has only three leaves, rather than the four which are mentioned in the Webster definition. Is it still a door? (Obviously yes – but the definition didn’t say that). Someone will eventually find an example of a structure which is referred to as a door, but which isn’t covered even by the exhaustive definition in Webster’s Third.

The moral is: don’t include every single bit of information you know. So, how much information is enough? The late Dwight Bolinger, a famous American linguist, said that the function of a definition was ‘to help people grasp meanings, and for this purpose their main task is to supply a series of hints and associations that will relate the unknown to something known’. So if someone really doesn’t know what a door is, how much information do they need to reliably identify one?

A more helpful (and much shorter) definition can be found in the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines a door as:

A movable structure used to close off an entrance, typically consisting of a panel that swings on hinges or that slides or rotates.

The first part of this definition focuses on the function of a door – what are doors for? It then goes on to say what a door ‘typically’ consists of. This is a more sensible approach: instead of trying to list every possible object which might be called a door, it gives examples of what most average doors look like (the word ‘typically’ is important here). This doesn’t rule out the possibility that there may be other kinds of door, but it gives the dictionary user enough information to match to whatever doors they encounter in the real world to what the dictionary says.

The word ‘definition’ is itself problematic, because (given its Latin origins) it implies the possibility that – for every word in the language – we can precisely nail down exactly what it means in all cases. That is not realistic. A better word would be ‘explanation’ – and it’s interesting that the great Dr Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, never used the word ‘definition’, preferring ‘explanation’.

Further reading

There is an interesting article in Slate magazine by Stefan Fatsis, called ‘The Definition of a Dictionary’, which talks about Webster’s Third and the work now going on to revise it, in the context of the huge technological changes since that dictionary was published in 1961.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University