Friday, July 12, 2013

Elements of a Definition

A recent thank-you note from an attendee of one of my webinars inspired me to share this information with technical writers who need to compose definitions. In that program, I said that a formal definition has four elements:

  • Term – name of the term
  • Type – category of the term
  • Function – role of the term
  • Value – benefit of the role
Here is an example:
A mobile phone (term) is a telephone (type) with access to a cellular radio system (function) for use over a wide area without a physical connection to a network (value).
The value is where technical writers, such as engineers and scientists, get caught up in worrying over whether they are saying more than they need to. When writing to fellow subject-matter experts, they rightly believe that adding the value is wordy at best and intelligence-insulting at worst. Not so when writing to a general audience. So always consider your audience when deciding whether the value is necessary in a definition.