Common Terms Used in Definitions

Though the word “definition” itself defies definition, the com­ponents that constitute a definition are delimited fairly well as follows:

Term,: Word or group of words, such as phrases, clauses, or one or more assertive sentences. To the extent that terms are defined, when need be, communication between or among researchers becomes precise. In the Socratic dialog cited earlier, the term to be defined was the word “piety.” In dictionaries or books of syn­onyms, we may find several alternate meanings for a given word to be defined. Out of these alternatives, the one that best explains the term and—this is important—best fits the context may serve the purpose of being the definition of the word. There may be occasions when the term is a group of related words, a phrase,

wherein it is not the literal meaning of individual words that is significant, but that of the bunch of words as a whole, such as “shadow boxing,” “end of the tunnel”; these are often referred to as idioms. In such cases, we need to go to books of idioms, which, though not as common as dictionaries, are available in most well- developed languages like English. The language of science is usu­ally sober; there is little room for idioms like those above or for other figurative words or word combinations.

The need to define a term when the term is a whole sentence is less often encountered; when it is, the definition usually takes the form of an explanation, often with illustrative example(s). It is worthy of note that in his great work, the Principia, Isaac New­ton starts with definitions, covering the first dozen or so pages, before even mentioning the problems addressed therein. One of the twelve definitions, as an example, is quoted below:

Definition VII: The accelerative quantity of a centripetal force is the measure of the same, proportional to the velocity which it generates in a given time.

Thus the force of the same loadstone is greater at a less dis­tance, and less at a greater: also the force of gravity is greater in valleys, less on tops of exceeding high mountains; and yet less (as shall hereafter be shown), at greater distances from the body of the earth; but at equal distances, it is the same everywhere; because (taking away, or allowing for, the resistance of the air), it equally accelerates all falling bodies, whether heavy or light, great or small.”5

Definiendum and Definienst These names are given, respec­tively, to the term to be defined and the term that does the defin­ing. One or both of these terms may be one or more words, or even, as we have just seen Newton do, one or more sentences.

Source: Srinagesh K (2005), The Principles of Experimental Research, Butterworth-Heinemann; 1st edition.

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