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  #1  
Old 01-26-2013, 08:45 AM
R3d Anonymous R3d Anonymous is offline
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How to get better at defining terms?

Often times, when I'm told to define a word, I really don't know how to. I know what the word means; it's just that I have trouble putting into exact definition form. It would really be helpful if I could gain the skill of being able to define words. As you know, I think that the definition of terms is a very useful one, and my signature shows that I value this. So how do I get better at defining terms?
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  #2  
Old 01-26-2013, 09:21 AM
Yorikke Yorikke is offline
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Here ya go.

Seriously, practice.
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Old 01-26-2013, 09:23 AM
drachillix drachillix is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Anonymous User View Post
Often times, when I'm told to define a word, I really don't know how to. I know what the word means; it's just that I have trouble putting into exact definition form. It would really be helpful if I could gain the skill of being able to define words. As you know, I think that the definition of terms is a very useful one, and my signature shows that I value this. So how do I get better at defining terms?
Practice, a partner may be helpful since in some ways this is as much a social question as a vocabulary one. Have them pick a word, just one a day, and ask you to define it. If you need to go look it up and get ideas, do so, then come back. A few months from now, you will probably have a much larger vocabulary.
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  #4  
Old 01-26-2013, 09:28 AM
Zeldar Zeldar is online now
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It's probably over-simplification but the definitions that work best are either

a) a narrowing down to specifics from the universe of similar or related things
b) a comparison to the things that something is not

Think 20 Questions as a way to proceed.
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  #5  
Old 01-26-2013, 09:30 AM
WhyNot WhyNot is offline
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Read a lot. Reading is the best way to increase your vocabulary, which is the first step in choosing precisely the term you mean, which is the first step in defining your term for debate.

Reading also gives you a better idea of what terms mean to other people, and connotations of terms, so that you can avoid using a term which may have an identical dictionary definition, but will get you knee jerk disagreement right off the bat, or side discussions which aren't what you meant to discuss.

Compare:

"People who move next to a farm should not have the right to publicly protest the stench of a pig wallow!"

to

"People who move next to a farm should not have the right to publicly protest the odor of a pig wallow!"

"Stench" and "odor" mean pretty much the same thing in the dictionary. But the first will often lead to an argument over whether pigs really smell that bad, while the second is more likely to lead to a discussion of protest rights and property zoning.
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  #6  
Old 01-26-2013, 09:33 AM
Fake Tales of San Francisco Fake Tales of San Francisco is offline
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It depends if you mean purely from a semantic perspective (the dictionary definitions) or from a pragmatic perspective (the social/contextual derived definitions). Certain terms have different meanings in different contexts, which is why it's important to define your terms in discussions. The classic example is the word 'theory', which has a different definition in layman terms than what it does in scientific terms (and arguably the scientific one is the 'truest' one, if such a feat is a possible).

If it's just semantics, then dictionaries are your best friend, and constant reference to them is nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes what we think are semantic definitions in our minds are actually pragmatic definitions that we've absorbed from words being misused by others. If you find yourself coming across this problem often, be introspective. Examine why you define a particular word in a particular way, when it's clear that others around you are not defining it in this way. But as has been already said, the only way is to practice - trial and error - and be willing to accept correction wherever it is offered.
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  #7  
Old 01-26-2013, 09:58 AM
Colibri Colibri is online now
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Moved to IMHO.

Colibri
General Questions Moderator
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  #8  
Old 01-26-2013, 10:27 AM
Aquadementia Aquadementia is offline
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See how it's done. Watch Word Girl.
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  #9  
Old 01-26-2013, 11:19 AM
Zeldar Zeldar is online now
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I recommend The Word Menu as an example of ways to define things.

Before I got my copy (years ago) I had had the idea to go through a dictionary and make lists of terms for specific fields and topics. An example field would be nautical terms. Another might be colors. That sort of thing. Much like a thesaurus does.

Even if it doesn't help with your basic issue of how to get better at defining things, it's a great reference source.
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  #10  
Old 01-26-2013, 11:20 AM
Nava Nava is offline
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Practice, practice, practice. The way we were taught to do it was by defining words in class and talking about why something was or was not part of the definition. For example, what is a "table", as in the piece of furniture? Many people will include things like the number of legs when they first try to define one, but I've seen tables with between one and six legs; the number of legs is thus not part of what makes a table be a table.

Note that there are many possible definitions: so long as they all can be understood to mean the same thing, they are all valid. Your definition doesn't need to match the dictionary's exact wording to be good.

Last edited by Nava; 01-26-2013 at 11:24 AM..
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  #11  
Old 01-26-2013, 11:28 AM
Nava Nava is offline
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ETA: since you're in high school, are you learning a second language? A game we played once in ESL class and which I've played with myself ever since was "multilingual word chains". Table can be translated to Spanish as mesa, which in turn happens to be English for the Spanish meseta ("little table", literally); on the other hand, table-as-in-rows-and-columns is a tabla in Spanish, and tabla also means plank as in wood...You can use that kind of games to play with definitions and thus widen your vocabulary, your understanding of each individual word's one or more meanings and your ability to translate between both languages.

Last edited by Nava; 01-26-2013 at 11:29 AM..
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  #12  
Old 01-26-2013, 11:48 AM
drew870mitchell drew870mitchell is offline
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(1) Read voraciously; your brain will gradually refine its own definitions through context clues

(2) Practice definitions with a partner under the guise of something like SAT or GRE prep

(3) Think of words as being dots on a continuous spectrum of meaning. For example:

Code:
no smell <__a_______b___> strong smell
Where "a" = "odor" and "b" = "stench." Then this opens you up to a lot of questions that will make you think about the word choices you're using. Does "odor" have other meanings that don't fit on this scale? Are there words that are between "odor" and "stench"?
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  #13  
Old 01-26-2013, 01:27 PM
Boyo Jim Boyo Jim is offline
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In a sense I disagree with what the other posters have said here. Certainly reading and practicing will increase your language skills, but that's only half of the issue.

If there's anything I've learned here, it's that whatever your definition of a word or a phrase is, there are legions of others who have different definitions that they cling to tenaciously. Half the arguments around here end up being about how we phrase the argument, not about the substance of the argument itself.

In reality, a definition of a term is at least as much a negotiation of the meaning among the people who are using it as it is a concrete definition that can be looked up in a book. In some fields, particularly in the sciences, there are official institutions that meet to hammer out definitions of the terminology they "own" (kinda sorta). An relatively recent example is how Pluto got voted out of it's "planet" status.

To me, the important thing is not to find some absolute definitions and rely upon them, but to exchange words and ideas and reach an understanding of a common definition that is understood within a certain group of people, while knowing that some other group may have a different understanding of the terms at issue.

I could take issue with a definition in this very thread. drew870mitchell says that "odor" and "stench" are on a continuum of definitions between weak and strong smells. While that's true, my typical use of the word "stench" is that it implies an unpleasant smell, something that is not considered on drew's scale. An antonym to that would be "scent", which has a positive (in my mind) connotation, except that it doesn't necessarily include an implication of the strength or weakness of the smell.

My real point is that language is almost infinitely malleable, and we have to be prepared to negotiate its meaning among ourselves.
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  #14  
Old 01-26-2013, 01:41 PM
monstro monstro is offline
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Learn synonyms for every "big" word you use. Not only does this help with definitions, but it will allow you to communicate effectively with any given audience.
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  #15  
Old 01-26-2013, 02:47 PM
R3d Anonymous R3d Anonymous is offline
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I was wondering if I could practice a little. Give me a few words to define, and I'll try to do it without referring to a dictionary.
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  #16  
Old 01-26-2013, 03:46 PM
mascaroni mascaroni is offline
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As WhyNot said, read.
Literature defines words.
Dictionaries report on the usage of words.

I would recommend reading Fowler's Modern English Usage.

And never use a multisyllabic word, erm ... a long one, when a short one will do.
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  #17  
Old 01-26-2013, 10:54 PM
Raging Bull Raging Bull is offline
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Study the dictionary
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  #18  
Old 01-27-2013, 03:16 AM
Isamu Isamu is offline
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Also learn what makes a bad definition, and try to stay away from them. For example:

Cat: Felis silvestris catus (This is too scientific and isn't helpful to anyone)

Angry: being in a state of anger (this definition is circular, and therefore again, doesn't help)
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  #19  
Old 01-27-2013, 01:31 PM
R3d Anonymous R3d Anonymous is offline
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Alright, I'm going to define the word "material" in my own words without looking at any sources.

Material - a substance; what something is made of.

How did I do?
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  #20  
Old 01-27-2013, 05:42 PM
tellyworth tellyworth is offline
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I read (some) books on an e-reader. Any time I notice a word that I can't confidently define, I look it up with the dictionary feature. I realise now just how often I used to rely on context and guesswork.
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  #21  
Old 01-27-2013, 06:38 PM
Isamu Isamu is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Anonymous User View Post
Alright, I'm going to define the word "material" in my own words without looking at any sources.

Material - a substance; what something is made of.

How did I do?
That's not bad. Remember though that words often have more than one meaning, and in this case you've only covered one of the meanings.
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  #22  
Old 01-27-2013, 06:42 PM
Enderw24 Enderw24 is offline
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Become a contestant on the $64,000 pyramid or Password.

Last edited by Enderw24; 01-27-2013 at 06:43 PM..
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  #23  
Old 01-27-2013, 10:00 PM
Nava Nava is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Anonymous User View Post
Alright, I'm going to define the word "material" in my own words without looking at any sources.

Material - a substance; what something is made of.

How did I do?
You gave two different things: a synonym and an explanation. Both are valid definitions.

As Isamu said, try to come up with definitions for the other meanings of "material", for other meanings of "substance", and with other synonyms. See if you can find a few antonyms too.
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