How to define words (terms)

Key massage: Of important words, you should know the exact definition.


How to define a word (a term)?

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab says (, 31.12.20):


"A formal definition is based upon a concise, logical pattern that includes as much information as it can within a minimum amount of space. ... A formal definition consists of three parts:

  1. The term (word or phrase) to be defined
  2. The class of object or concept to which the term belongs
  3. The differentiating characteristics that distinguish it from all others of its class"

Sokrates and Aristotle say that a definition provides the essence of a term. The essence of something is in simple words the most important of something.


Theaitetos makes a first attempt to define the word knowledge. "Socrates raises objections to this definition. ... the definition is only an enumeration; instead of getting to the essence of knowledge, it lists only instances of knowledge." (, 01.08.21)


So a definition is not an enumeration, but it names the "distinguishing features" from other objects. In other words: A definition names the most important conditions which must be met so that an object can be designated by the word (term).


A definition is like a logical rule (pattern): if something has the characteristics A and B, then it is ... .


Example of a logical rule: If knowledge is new (1st premise), reproducible (2nd premise), and useful (3rd premise), then it is science (conclusion). (A premise is a prerequisite or an assumption.)


A definition is only useful if it is simple. It cannot take into account all possible exceptions (exceptions confirm the rule). Exceptions do not matter if the definition is the most useful compared to other definitions.


"Most human concepts elude precise definition, as they have fluid boundaries and context depending meaning. We call such concept flexible, in contrast to crisp concepts that are well-defined and context-independend. ... Note how difficult it is to define precisely concepts such as chair, key, space, game, freedom, mechanism or the like, that we regularily use in our communication. (, 23.01.24, p. 2-3)


"Only the fittest theories survive. Although it can never be legitimately said of a theory that it is true, it can hopefully be said that it is the best available …" (Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What Is This Thing Called Science? Open University Press, page 60)


A definition must satisfy another condition:


"A definition is the explanation of a previously unknown word with a combination of at least two previously known words." (Seffert , H. (1997) Einführung in die Wissenschaft. München: Beck Verlag, p. 49)


It makes no sense to use unknown words to define a term. If an unknown word is used in a definition, it has to be defined (explained) afterwards.


Definition: A definition ...

  • is simple - it explains an unknown word with known words.
  • names the class of object the word belongs to.
  • names the most important characteristics that distinguish the word (term) from other objects.
  • is not an enumeration - it provides the essence of a word (term).

If one criterion is not met, it is not a definition.


Each person can define words or terms as they wish. For example, you can write: "In this text I use the word ... according to the definition ..." But a definition should correspond to the language that people use in their everyday lives.


Example: In everyday life, almost all people understand the word "stress" as something negative: "Don't stress me out!" But there are many scientists who say that stress can also be positive. In my opinion, this destroys the meaning of the word "stress". People no longer know whether negative or positive stress is meant by this word. If I want to say, "People need positive stress," then I would phrase it as, "People need challenges." A definition of stress that means "positive stress" does not seem to make sense to me.

How to define a word / a term -