Definitions: Nonfiction’s Ugly Ducklings

April 23, 2019 § 7 Comments


bennettBy John Randolph Bennett

Definitions get a bum rap, probably because we all remember the clunkers we’ve seen (and perhaps written ourselves) in high school papers, superfluous definitions arriving with all the grace of a Zamboni machine blundering into the opening moments of a figure-skating competition.

You know the kind of definitions I’m talking about:

“Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a tragedy. Merriam-Webster (Eleventh Edition) defines tragedy as: ‘1. A disastrous event. 2. A serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.’”

But definitions have their uses, not only in ensuring that the reader and the writer are both working from a common understanding of key terms, but also, in some cases, even aiding the writer with topic discovery and the organization of form.

Let’s dismiss the Zamboni stereotype right away. Dozens of sleek definitions gracefully skate by us in our reading every day. We appreciate them, even if we don’t pause to reflect that we’re reading definitions.

Thus, in a New York Times editorial about the near extinction of a porpoise in Mexican waters: “The vaquita (its name is Spanish for ‘little cow’) is a toothed whale and the smallest of all cetaceans; a full-grown female can measure just five feet and weigh only 75 pounds.”

Or in the middle of a New Yorker article about the madrigals of Gesualdo: “The madrigal, a short secular piece for a small group of voices, became the favorite vehicle of musical Mannerism.”

Or nearly leading off a Bloomberg article about the LIBOR benchmark: “Global regulators decided to move away from the London interbank offered rate – a vital part of the financial system given that it’s linked to, at last count, about $350 trillion of loans, derivatives and other instruments across various currencies – after prosecutors found that banks around the world manipulated it.”

If you want to get persnickety about definitions and how to write them – and I do – it’s helpful to go back to the source (Aristotle), who is nicely summarized by a textbook author (Corbett). In his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Professor Edward P.J. Corbett points out that Aristotle, with a biologist’s flair for taxonomy, suggests we put the thing to be defined “into a genus or general class and then give the differentiae or the specific differences that distinguish the thing from every other thing comprehended in the same general class.” That is, the structure of a definition is genus differentiae.

To write a definition, then, you begin by asking to what genus or general class of things a particular thing belongs. The genus for vaquita is “whale.” For madrigal, it’s “piece” of music. For LIBOR, it’s financial “rate.”

Once you’ve laid this foundation, go about with elaborations that build out the definition, making it more specific; distinguishing, for example, a vaquita from a blue whale and a madrigal from a motet. (Merriam-Webster defines a motet as “a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment.” Note that the genus in this definition, “choral composition,” is already more specific than the genus in The New Yorker’s definition of a madrigal: a “piece.” The genus can be as precise or abstract as needed.)

Aristotle suggests four types of differentiation or “causes” for use in definitions: the material (what a thing is made of), the formal (what form a thing takes), the efficient (what force or agent brings a thing about), and the final (what purpose a thing has).

Thus, a car is a four-wheeled (formal cause) vehicle (genus) used for personal transportation (final cause). In contrast, a truck is a multi-wheeled (formal cause) vehicle (genus), sometimes consisting of a cab and one or more trailers (formal cause), used for hauling goods, sometimes over long distances (final cause).

In everyday writing, it’s not always necessary to include all four causes. We omitted auto and truck manufacturers as efficient causes above, and you probably didn’t mind. Nor are all four causes always relevant. The New York Times’ definition of vaquita focuses on the whale’s formal aspects. Any sense of its final cause would be theological speculation.

If you find yourself stuck trying to begin a piece of writing, try falling back on Aristotle’s formula. It’s a good way to get relevant words down on the page, even if those words don’t make it into your final draft.

(A few years ago, I was tutoring a high-school student who suffered from writer’s block. We took to beginning our sessions by him dashing off definitions of terms that I selected at random: the Boston Red Sox, Dunkin Donuts, David Bowie, and so on. It’s not a bad way to limber up.)

There’s another occasion for returning to Aristotle’s formal approach to definitions. If you’re writing about a topic, particularly under deadline, and you set down its origin, its form, its source, and its purpose, you’ve probably done a decent job of framing your discussion. After all, you’ve concisely described your topic and identified its distinguishing aspects or categories. Not bad for a sentence or two of work.

Precise, revelatory, and organizationally useful: Examined closely, definitions, those ugly ducklings of prose, turn out to be fast-flying swans.
___

John Randolph Bennett is the very definition of a busy freelance writer with lots of short deadlines and a massive TBR pile. He lives with his family in southern New Hampshire. Follow him on twitter @randolphbennett and read his occasional blog posts at www.johnrandolphbennett.com.

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