How to handle definitions in termbase creation

Pavel’s tutorial provides the following definition in their glossary: “A dictionary-style statement that describes the concept designated by a term. A type of textual support on a terminology record that helps establish the textual match between languages by stating the essential and delimiting characteristics of a concept.”

We should avoid using deficient definitions (circular, incomplete, and negative): Examples taken from ISO 704

A circular definition is one that uses the term(s) being defined as a part of the definition or assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined. Either the audience must already know the meaning of the key term(s), or the definition is deficient in including the term(s) to be defined in the definition itself. Such definitions lead to a need for additional information that motivated someone to look at the definition in the first place and, thus, violate the principle of providing new or useful information. If someone wants to know what a cellular phone is, telling them that it is a “phone that is cellular” will not be especially illuminating. Source: Wikipedia.

Example: tree height

– circular definition: tree height measured from the ground surface to the top of a tree

– corrected definition: distance between the ground surface and the top of a tree.

A definition shall describe the content of the concept precisely. It shall be neither too narrow nor too broad. Otherwise, the definition is considered incomplete. Non-essential or irrelevant characteristics in the definition may unintentionally include or exclude objects from the extension of the concept. A definition is considered too broad if the characteristics selected to describe the concept allow for objects that should not be part of the extension. A definition is considered too narrow if the characteristics selected exclude objects that should be part of the extension. (Source: ISO 704)

Example: mechanical pencil

– too broad: writing instrument composed of a barrel and a refill. By not specifying precisely the type of refills, this definition broadens the extension to include ball-point, roller-ball and felt-tip pens as well as mechanical pencils.

– too narrow: writing instrument composed of a barrel, a lead refill and push-button advance mechanism. By specifying a push-button advance mechanism, this definition narrows the extension to exclude those mechanical pencils using other types of advance mechanisms.

– corrected definition: writing instrument composed of a barrel, a lead refill and a lead-advance mechanism.

Negative definition: A definition shall describe what a concept is, not what it is not.

Example: deciduous tree

– inappropriate negative definition: tree other than an evergreen tree deciduous tree

– corrected definition: tree that loses its foliage seasonally. However, when the absence or non-existence of a characteristic is essential to the understanding of a concept, a negative definition may be required.

Example: nonconformity

non-fulfillment of a specified requirement

Complementary readings:

ISO 704 on definitions.


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