Education

The Various Types of Definitions

The wild thing about definitions is that there are many different types of definitions, each used to explain a particular type of concept. However, the two most general types of definitions are intensional and extensional definitions.

The two general kinds of definitions

There are specific types of definition forms we’ll cover in a minute. But first we need to start with the most used forms of definitions, intensional and extensional. Let’s look at defining what we see in the illustration that follows:

Baked Goods

Baked Goods

Intensional definitions

An intensional definition specifies the necessary and sufficient set of features or properties that are shared by everything to which it applies.

Term

Definition

Baked Goods

Foods that are cooked in an oven of some fashion that uses prolonged dry heat, usually based on flour or corn.

In this first definition, we see that the category portion of the definition is “foods that are cooked in an oven”, followed by the differentiator of being “based on flour or corn”. It is both necessary and sufficient for anything being baked to be cooked in an oven of some fashion. Intensional definitions are best used when something has a clearly defined set of properties and have too many referents to list in an extensional definition. For instance, you would want to use an intensional definition to define business records, as a business record is a document (hard copy or digital) that re-cords a business dealing. To attempt to enumerate each and every type of business record would be nearly impossible.

Extensional definitions

The opposite of an intensional definition, an extensional definition is usually a list naming every object (or at least enough of a list to create clarity in the reader’s mind) that belongs to the concept.

Term

Definition

Baked Goods

Breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, biscuits, scones and similar items of food that are cooked in an oven of some fashion.

This example presents the individual differentiators first “breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, biscuits, scones” that belong to a common category “cooked in an oven”.

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Beyond the two basic types of definitions, there are several other notable definition types that can be employed. We’ll cover them now.

Stipulative definitions

This is used when you make up a term for the first time. Which means that you’ve completed all of the research necessary and can’t find that term anywhere. It is your assignment of meaning to your term. The illustration below shows two scones, a plain scone on the left and a Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone on the right.

plain scone and Sprinkle Scone

A plain scone and Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone

Term

Definition

Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone

A baked vanilla flavored scone, dusted with sugar, covered in chocolate sprinkles both baked in and rolled onto the top of the scone.

The stipulative definition here begins with the general definition of scone, the category and then adds the differentiator, or specific characteristics of this particular type of scone.

Lexical definitions

This is how the term is used in a particular community (think Urban Dictionary), or many of the definitions in Compliance Dictionary that are derived from usage in a single document. In this case, let’s say that the document was Charlotte’s Cookbook, the stipulative definition and the lexical definition could be one and the same, as probably no one else would name their scone Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone.

Scone defined as ingredients

Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone defined as ingredients

Term

Definition

Charlotte’s Sprinkle Scone

These wonderful scones are made with

  • N parts flour,
  • N parts water,
  • N parts yeast,
  • N eggs,
  • N chocolate nibs, etc.

Most definitions in cookbooks, like this one, will start with the category of the item “scones” and then the rest of the definition, the differentiator, will be a listing of ingredients. One of our collective favorite recipe sites, Epicurious, follows this format quite often. They’ll describe, in general (the category) what is being cooked, and then provide the differentiator not only in ingredients, but several versions of the ingredient lists for variations of the food in question.

However, there are other times when industry-specific terms are used in various documents, where you’ll get each of those documents giving their own, particular, definition of the term. Take, for instance, the term retail payment system. Within the United States’ banking world, the FFIEC defines a retail payment system one way. Within the European banking system, the European Central Bank defines it differently, with the European definition being more precise.

Term

Definition

retail payment system

A system that transfers funds between non-financial institutions. (US’ FFIEC)

retail payment system

Funds transfer systems which typically handle a large volume of payments of relatively low value in forms such as cheques, credit transfers and direct debits. They are generally used for the bulk of payments to and from individuals and between individuals and corporates. (European Central Bank)

Notice that both of these definitions provide the category first “systems that transfers funds” and “funds transfer system”, and then follows that with the differentiator “between non-financial institutions” and “handle a large volume of payments of relatively low value in forms such as cheques, credit transfers and direct debits”.

While these lexical definitions are fairly close, there are other lexical definitions that are very different. For instance, a common term used in many laws is covered entity. Generally speaking, that’s any person or organization covered by the particular law. Two examples show how the US’ healthcare law called HIPAA, defines the term and how the US New York State defines the term:

Term

Definition

covered entity

Healthcare providers who transmit health information. (HIPAA)

covered entity

Any Person or organization operating under or required to operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the Banking Law, the Insurance Law or the Financial Services Law. (New York State)

Each document has a specific audience they are writing to. Each document has defined the term for the readers of that document. What both of them share in common is the format of the definition. Both start with the category of “healthcare providers” and “any person or organization” and then provide the differentiator after that “who transmit health information” and “operating under or required to operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the Banking Law, the Insurance Law or the Financial Services Law”.

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Here are a couple of different takes on writing a definition that you’ll see sometimes, the partitive definition and the encyclopedic definition. To show the differences, we’ll define yeast, first as a part of something, and then provide a more, exhaustive, definition.

Yeast

Partitive definitions

These are definitions that explain the concept as being a part of a greater whole; the distinct part(s) of a more comprehensive concept.

Term

Definition

yeast

As a key ingredient for most baked goods that is commonly used as a leavening agent in baking bread and bakery products.

Notice here that this definition begins with saying that the yeast is “a key ingredient”, or part of the category “baked goods”, then adds the differentiator for the part it plays “leavening agent”.

Functional definitions

These are definitions that explain the actions or activities of the concept in relation to the more comprehensive concept.

Term

Definition

yeast

An ingredient that is commonly used as a leavening agent in baking bread and bakery products.

This definition focuses on what yeast does within the baking process.

Encyclopedic definitions

These are definitions that go beyond the requirements of definition. Not only do these types of definition provide the context and characteristics of the concept, they provide additional information about the concept as well.

Term

Definition

yeast

As a key ingredient for most baked goods that is commonly used as a leavening agent in baking bread and bakery products, where it converts the fermentable sugars present in the dough’s gluten into carbon dioxide and ethanol, thus trapping the releasing bubbles of gas into the gluten and making the dough fill up like a balloon as it rises.

As with the partitive definition, this definition begins with saying that the yeast is “a key ingredient”, or part of the category “baked goods”, then adds the differentiator for the part it plays “leavening agent”. It then goes on to add how yeast works to make the dough rise as part of the definition. You don’t really need to know how yeast works to understand that it’s a leavening agent, unless you don’t know what a leavening agent is and don’t want to look it up.

Theoretical definitions

A definition which is really a scientific hypothesis in disguise. It attempts to present an argument for a concept. Here’s a rare and I think erudite theoretical definition of a US scone that we found.

British and US Scones

British Scone (left) and US Scone (right)

Term

Theoretical Definition

American scone

A scone in America is a derivative of the British scone with the following differences that have occurred because of time and mannerisms. The American scone has twice the butter-to-flour ratio as the British Scone. It is also normally chock-full of little-bits of lovely, such as currants, chocolate nibs, etc. This has occurred because of the incorrigible need for inclusiveness in the American persona. They tend to blend everything and include everything in everything. It seems more is better applies not just to their life, but to their baking world as well.

Notice in this definition that it begins with including the American scone in the category of British scone, and then add the differentiators of “butter-to-flour ratio” and being “chock-full of little-bits of lovely...”. After the category and differentiator, the definition attempts to provide a theory of how the differentiation came to be. Useful? Who knows. Humorous, yes.

Synonym definitions

Then there are the very simplistic synonym definitions. These definitions use synonyms of the concept to describe the concept. These are normally used when you need to define instances of a concept in a simple fashion.

Biscuits and cookies

Biscuits and cookies

Term

Synonym Definition

biscuit

A British version of an American Cookie.

cookie

An American version of a British biscuit.

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