What does that mean? Define your terms!

Editing a paper, defining your terms define definitionWhether it is because you are using a word your reader might not know, or because you are using an abstract term which your readers might view differently, you must often define your terms when writing an academic paper.  There are a number of ways to do this.

One way to define your terms is through apposition, or arranging your sentence so the unknown noun or noun phrase is followed by another noun or noun phrase that restates it. 

  • Success, or achievement of one’s goals, doesn’t come without effort. 
  • Extroverts (highly sociable people) hate to be alone. 
  • Blinking is a reflexan action performed without conscious thought. 

Notice how the appositive phrase is set off by commas, parentheses, or a dash.

A second way, is through the use of synonyms. 
  • His dictatorial, or overbearing, manner made him highly unpopular.(adjectives) 
  • To sue, or take someone to court, can be expensive.(verbs) 

When choosing your synonym, be sure to use the same form of the word.

A third way is through the use of a formal definition.  A formal definition is made up of three parts: 
unknown noun general category adjective clause
which differentiates the noun from
all others of that general category

podium defined definition define

A podium


is a platform


that supports the notes of a public speaker.

prism defined definition define

A prism


is a transparent object

that separates light into a spectrum.

When defining terms in this way, be sure that your adjective clause clearly tells the reader how this noun is different than all others in that general category.  An error would look like this:

A fork is a utensil that we use to eat with.  Yes, but so are a knife and spoon.knife fork spoon defined definition define

How is a fork differentA fork is an eating utensil that has tines with which to spear the food

knife fork spoon defined definition defineA fourth way, especially useful when dealing with abstractions, is to say what something is not. 

When I say “ideal relationship,” I don’t mean being with someone for every second of every day.“Success” isn’t the same as wealth.“Linguistic fluency” doesn’t require one to be completely error-free.

A final way is to explain how something behaves or what it does, to define through example. 

Freedom involves responsibility.  It requires an understanding of where our rights end and those of someone else begin.  Living freely means being true to our values and demonstrating them consistently in the world.  For example, we freely choose our leaders, careers, friends, life-partners, life-styles and leisure activities, but one hopes we do this with thought and foresight, making choices in agreement with what we feel is most important in life.  Above all, a free individual doesn’t blindly follow authority or seek the approval of his/her peers above all else.

Try to practice one or more of these in the next paper you are asked to write!