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Paragraphs of Definition

Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia


To define the term ‘definition’ is quite hard because it requires the definitions of definition. The word ‘definition’ comes from the verb to ‘define’, which means “to state the meaning of a word or to describe the basic qualities of something”. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, definition simply means “an explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase, especially in a dictionary”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a statement expressing the essential nature of something” or “the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol” (http://www.merriam-webster.com), while Word Reference defines it as “an exact description of the nature, scope, or meaning of something” (http://www.wordreference.com). Based on the above definitions, definition can be defined as an explanation of the meaning of a word or term. A good definition avoids confusion or misunderstanding, because it conveys the clear and precise meaning of a term, and thus helps you to understand what other people exactly mean.

A definition can be formal or informal. The definitions provided in dictionaries are examples of formal definition, which generally include three elements: (1) a term, i.e. the word being defined; (2) class, which refers to the (big) group to which the term belongs; and (3) differentiating features, or the word or phrase that makes it different with the others from the same class. For example, in “Scientific writing is a form of writing that is based on actual and relevant studies” the term is “scientific writing”, the class is “writing”, and the differentiating features is “that is based on actual and relevant studies”. To take another example, in “Science is the field of study which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or part” the term is “science”, the class is “field of study”, and the differentiating features“ is “which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or part”.

Informal definitions express the meaning of a term partially or incompletely. They are frequently based on the writers’ experience so that they are not universal. The three common informal definitions are operational definitions, synonyms, and connotations. Operational Definitions give the meaning of an abstract word for one particular time and place. This is also called as an agreed-upon criterion. For instances, “An excellent score is when you get not less than 90 in the test.” This formulation is valid in the institution, but in other educational institutions, an excellent score might need just 86 or 95. In a certain culture, “Love is the feeling of someone when he or she likes and does nice things for you and with you”, whereas in other culture “Love means readiness to sacrifice everything for those being loved.”

Informal definitions could also be formed by using synonyms, or words that mean the same as another word. There are three ways to put the synonyms into a sentence in order to make a definition. First, by putting it into parenthesis, such as, “An individual’s intelligence (or mental capacity) is measured by using intelligent quotient (IQ) test”, “intelligence” is defined by providing its synonym, i.e., “mental capacity” in of. The synonyms could also be placed in a sentence by using dashes or an appositive, such as in “People’s main labors in life—learning, earning, and yearning—are also their major reasons for living” and “The altitude, or height above sea level, of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is over 12,000 feet.”

Last but not least, informal definitions could also be formed through denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal or exact dictionary meaning of the word. Connotation, on the other hand, involves all the associations related to the word. By combining both, for instance, one may write a definition like this “That politician is a snake (He a cunning, treacherous, and insidious politician).

Writing a Definition Paragraph

The definitions discussed so far are formed in single sentences. They are just brief definitions. However, definitions can be extended into a paragraph called “definition paragraph”. A definition paragraph is essentially a definition sentence which has been expanded into a paragraph by adding special meanings, description, narration and/or other kinds of paragraph development in order to clarify the term being defined. Such paragraph usually begins with a definition sentence which is used as the topic sentence. Each category in the definition is expanded into major supporting sentences, and major supporting sentences could be supported by minor supporting sentences.

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