Types of Definitions Used in Technical Writing

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  • 00:01 Definitions in…
  • 1:02 Parenthetical Definitions
  • 1:51 Sentence Definitions
  • 3:15 Extended Definitions
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Including definitions in technical writing help improve comprehension of the document. This video explains the three main types of definitions in technical documents and provides examples of how to write the definitions.

Definitions in Technical Writing

My first science class in college was a blur. As soon as the professor began speaking, words flew out of his mouth that I had never heard before. To understand what he was saying, I would have had to look up every other word in the dictionary. I knew I couldn't keep up, so I dropped the class and majored in English.

If the students can't comprehend the information being disseminated, can learning really take place? This is a question we must ask ourselves about our writing. If what we write contains words the readers can't understand, can the reader really comprehend the information in the document? The answer is no, so it's our job as writers to make sure that we provide definitions for words that can potentially be difficult for our audience to understand.

There are three types of definitions commonly used in technical writing:

  • Parenthetical definitions
  • Sentence definitions
  • Extended definitions

The type of definition you choose for your document will depend on the word being defined and the overall purpose of the document.

Parenthetical Definitions

Parenthetical definitions are words that quickly explain a term and are included within the same sentence as the word being defined. These informal definitions can be a synonym or a short phrase. The definition will be placed in parentheses immediately following the word being defined.

Parenthetical definitions are used to explain words that need clarification but are not the main focus of the document. For example, you might write, 'Our company should invest in creating sinistral (left-handed) office supplies to meet the growing market demand.'

Notice that the term being defined, sinistral, does not need a lengthy explanation for readers to understand the concept of the sentence. Instead, a simple synonym placed immediately after the word sufficiently explains the term.

Sentence Definitions

There are times when a few words are not enough to explain a technical term. In this case, the definition provided needs to be more extensive. Sentence definitions can provide the additional information needed to help increase comprehension.

Sentence definitions are an explanation of a word using one sentence. These are more formal explanations than parenthetical definitions. Sentence definitions follow a similar form, which includes:

  • The word being defined
  • The class to which the word belongs
  • The feature that distinguish the term from other words

For example, 'The heart is an organ that pumps blood through the body.' Notice that the word being defined is provided first (heart), then the word is put into a class or category (organ), and finally, distinguishing features are explained (pumps blood).

Here are some other examples of sentence definitions:

  • A pig is an animal that rolls in the mud.
  • Scissors are an instrument that is used to cut items, such as paper.
  • A hoyden is a girl who is boisterous and bold.
  • A kickshaw is food served as an appetizer and is usually a delicacy.

Keeping the word-class-distinguishing feature format allows the readers to compare the word to terms they may already know, while also understanding how it differs from those words, which improves comprehension.

Extended Definitions

Although sentence definitions provide more specific details to define a word, there are times in technical writing when the term is so important to the document or so complex in its meaning that an entire paragraph or more is needed to help explain the term. This is when an extended definition is necessary.

Extended definitions are the use of a paragraph or more to expand on a word that may be difficult to comprehend. An extended definition almost always starts with a sentence definition, but then expands on the word by providing additional sentences about one or more of the following:

  • The function of the term
  • The location of the term
  • The physical traits of the term
  • The causes and effects of the term

Let's look at an example extended definition:

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