Monday, April 18, 2011

Talking around a definition (2)

Many writers today, unable or unwilling to clearly state a definition, resort to talking around a definition.* If you want to write clearly and persuasively, try to avoid falling into this habit of talking around a definition.

Example of talking around a definition

A government web site about bullying went to the trouble of devoting a separate web page (“What is Bullying?”) to the definition of bullying. But the web page does not define bullying. Judge for yourself; here’s the entire text from that page:

What is Bullying?

Bullying is a widespread and serious problem that can happen anywhere. It is not a phase children have to go through, it is not "just messing around", and it is not something to grow out of. Bullying can cause serious and lasting harm.

Although definitions of bullying vary, most agree that bullying involves:

Imbalance of Power: people who bully use their power to control or harm and the people being bullied may have a hard time defending themselves

Intent to Cause Harm: actions done by accident are not bullying; the person bullying has a goal to cause harm

Repetition: incidents of bullying happen to the same the [sic] person over and over by the same person or group

Types of Bullying

Bullying can take many forms. Examples include:

Verbal: name-calling, teasing

Social: spreading rumors, leaving people out on purpose, breaking up friendships

Physical: hitting, punching, shoving

Cyberbullying: using the Internet, mobile phones or other digital technologies to harm others

An act of bullying may fit into more than one of these groups.

Those 174 words describe bullying. They provide many details about bullying. But they do not do what the title of the web page promises: define bullying.

Take another look at the footnote below. A proper definition includes (1) the name of the thing to be defined [“ewe”]; (2) the verb to be, stated or implied [“is”]; (3) a category the reader will recognize [“sheep”]; and (4) one or more modifiers [“female”] that distinguish the thing being defined from other things in the same category [e.g., a ram].

Here’s a dictionary definition of the transitive verb bully:

“Bully: To treat in an overbearing or intimidating manner.”

The Takeaway: When you have promised your readers a definition, don’t talk around a definition. Write and deliver a clear definition, or cite a dictionary definition.

See disclaimer.

*Here’s a definition of definition. “Lexical definition specifies the meaning of an expression by stating it in terms of other expressions whose meaning is assumed to be known (e.g., a ewe is a female sheep).” Source: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia.

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