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The structure of definitions

In this article we examine the structure of dictionary definitions.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Now let’s look at the structure and grammar of definitions using another key term defined by Professor Gardner.

Recording our definition

Professor Gardner also gave us the following definition of ‘disciplines’:

So, disciplines are different ways of seeing the world. English and history are different disciplines, business and engineering are different disciplines. Sometimes they’re called ‘subjects’ and that’s very similar. Sometimes they’re related to departments. So, you might have English and history in two different departments, or they might be in the same department, in the department of liberal arts. So it’s not always the same as departments, but it’s ways of understanding and seeing the world.
Following the process we used in the previous step, we have drawn our initial understanding of this in a diagram:
Then we built our understanding of the term by looking it up in a dictionary:
Our definition of the word ‘disciplines’, based on Professor Gardner’s explanation and the dictionary entry might look like this:
Academic disciplines are the subjects that students study at university, like English or history. Each discipline has different ways of seeing the world. Disciplines are grouped together into departments like Liberal arts.

Grammar of definitions

The grammar of definitions often follows this pattern:

A is a (type of) B that/which/who C

‘A’ is the object, fact or opinion which the writer is defining; a word with specific meaning.

‘B’ is the general noun which includes the meaning of A.

‘C’ is a defining relative clause adding more information to B to help explain the meaning of A.

For example, we could say that:

Disciplines are types of subjects that students study at university
A   B   C


Genres are types of texts that have specific features
A   B   C

Structure of definitions

You can think about a good definition like this:

  1. the word you want to define
  2. the idea/group/type that this word belongs to
  3. something that shows how this word is different from the other words in the same group

Examples of definitions

Let’s look at some examples of definitions.

  • Eggs are a type of food.

Do you think this is a good definition?

This definition has the word we want to define (1), eggs. It also has the group that this word belongs to (2), food. However, this definition does not have anything that shows how this food is different from any other type of food, so it doesn’t really help us understand what an egg is. We should add some defining characteristics to help us get a more specific understanding.

  • Eggs are a type of food that come from chickens and have a hard outer shell and a yolk.

This definition gives us much more information about the word.

Let’s look at another example.

  • Textbooks have core information about a subject.

This definition has the word we want to define (1), textbooks. It also has a defining characteristic (3), core information about a subject. However, it does not state which group this word belongs to so it would be difficult for a reader to fully understand what a textbook is from this definition. We could add some extra information to clarify the definition further.

  • Textbooks are a type of publication, usually used by students, that contain core information about a subject.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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English for Academic Study

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