Definitions have been around for ages. They are more than words describing words. Proper definitions need to be in a certain way for conveying the essence of a term or concept accurately. The process of creating them requires a lot of planning and consideration.
A broad definition misses the essential part and a narrow one includes things that aren’t essential. Many definitions end up failing to solve their purpose due to circularity, obscurity and metaphors that unnecessarily complicate them.
A good definition is broad and narrow at the same time, it conveys what’s essential while being precise and sticking to the objective. It is genuine and doesn’t have any hidden stipulations.
Good definitions should not contain the word that is being defined itself. And lastly, defining something by stating what it’s “not” is an ineffective way of describing it. Sometimes this is unavoidable but definitions should generally be in a positive sense where they can be.
For example – Defining a ‘bird’ as “an animal that flies” is fallacious as birds like penguins and ostriches can’t fly. Defining them as “warm-blooded animal” would be too broad considering there other warm-blooded animal species like mammals, reptiles and lizards. And defining them as “feathered egg-laying animal” would be too narrow as there are male birds that get disregarded in this case.
Here, a good definition will contain all the essential characteristics in a complete, clear and honest manner. Merriam Webster defines ‘bird’ precisely as “Warm-blooded vertebrates distinguished by having the body more or less completely covered with feathers and the forelimbs modified as wings.”
Good definitions are valuable as they help us to have better conversations, discussions and arguments. They let us have a common understanding of an issue even if we’re having clashing beliefs. Having proper definitions saves time as the audience gains the understanding of a term or concept in just one sentence that everyone agrees with.