Defining

to define: v. to state the precise meaning of something; to describe the nature or basic qualities of; to specify distinctly; to serve to distinguish.

Defining is simply a more specialized mode of explaining, in which you must be especially precise because defining something means separating it from other similar concepts.

You will seldom be asked to write a whole paper defining something. More commonly, you will be expected to act on your definition. For example, in math you may have to define differential equations and be able to solve problems based on your definition; in psychology you may need to define Freud's theories and apply your definition to a case study; in business you may need to define a cost/benefit equation and make a case for this practice.

At one point in the water-treatment essay, the writers provide us with a technical definition of pollution that is both more inclusive and more precise than their description of Lake Champlain pollution so far:

In order to talk about pollution, one must define the terms involved. According to the dictionary "to pollute," means, "to defile, to soil, or to make unclean." This definition is a bit too general for our needs so we incorporate another: "Pollution is the introduction of material or effects at a harmful level" (C. R. Curds and H. A. Hawkes 20).

The two external sources are pretty basic—a dictionary and a text on the subject of pollution (Curds and Hawkes' Ecological Aspects of Used Water Treatment, 1975); however, they get the job done. When writing, in the academic world and elsewhere, make your definitions clear and authoritative.

Sometimes it will be necessary to do your own defining, as in the following case, where Susan defines the various strands of contemporary music in order to classify and compare them:

"Rock Classics" can be loud, raucous, and even noisy at times, but then the band will slow down with gentle ballads. The bands which play this type of music include the following: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Neil Young, and even the Beatles.

Susan then provides a definition of several more categories: Heavy Metal, Glitter Rock, and One Hit Wonders. Here, for example, is her definition of Glitter Rock:

This style of music is very extravagant, peculiar, and bizarre. It is hard to describe, being sometimes screechy, other times quiet. This type of music got its start in the early seventies with performers such as David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Frank Zappa.

Susan's task is a difficult one, since music—especially contemporary music—is forever changing and does not succumb easily to definition. However, notice that she uses examples of well-known rock performers to help her clarify what she means. The use of examples typically clarifies and strengthens definitions.

When writing essays that depend heavily on defining something, keep the following principles in mind: (1) in defining a word, use synonyms and not the word itself to make your definition clear (for example, "Fish are cold-blooded animals living in water and having backbones, gills, and fins."); (2) illustrate with concrete examples (as Susan did above or as we could do about fish by describing several different species of them); (3) go back to the basics; don't assume your reader knows even the simplest terms; don't be afraid to state what to you is obvious (that, for example, all fish "live in water"); (4) sometimes it's helpful to point out what your definition does not include (the term fish, for example, does not normally include whales, lobsters, or scallops).

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