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The Definitions Book: How to Write Definitions

The Definitions Book is Divided into Four Parts:

  1. The Basics of Definitions
  2. How to Write Simple Definitions
  3. How to Write Advanced Definitions
  4. How to Write Definitions for Specific Circumstances

Contents

The Basics of Definitions

Using Words You and Your Audience Know
What Happens When We Communicate
The Importance of Defining Terms (part one)
The Importance of Defining Terms (part two)
What is a Definition?
The Various Types of Definitions
Types of Definitions Cheat Sheet
How to Test Existing Definitions

How to Write Simple Definitions

Step 0 - Limit your definitions to a single concept
Step 1 - Research the Term
Step 2 - Determine the Term's Concept
Step 3 - Choosing the Definition Type

How to Write Advanced Definitions

Step 4 - How to Formalize the Term Entry
Step 5 - Add Semantic Relationships to the Definition
Step 6 – Reviewing Your Definitions

How to Write Definitions for Specific Circumstances

What are Conversational Entries?
What are Snippet Entries?
Glossary Entries
How to Automate Glossary Creation
What are Dictionary Entries?
Bibliography

The Basics of Definitions

Before we get into how to write a definition, you need to know a bit about definitions themselves, and how to spot good and bad definitions.

Once you know that, we’ll walk you through the five steps to creating a good definition.

Then we’ll teach you how to apply and extend those steps to craft different types of definitions.

So let’s start at the very beginning, shall we?

Using Words You and Your Audience Know

Ya know, this seems pretty obvious – almost so obvious it shouldn't be the first thing you read in a book about how to write definitions. But it has to be said. It has to be said because all too often we read something in our business lives (not so much for entertainment, thank the universe) that just doesn't make sense. In some instances, the author wants to "sound smart" by using "big words". As an example, here's a paper from a student I read the other day:

"The dialectical interface between neo-obstructionists and anti-disestablishment GOPers is stuck in a morass of quibbling over pettifog."

The paper was about discussions between students and lawmakers over stricter gun laws for assault weapons. The sentence, in plain English, reads as this:

"The logical discussions between student protesters and Republican lawmakers resisting change is bogged down because of arguing over petty things."

In some instances, the author just uses the wrong words. One famous example, used in many word choice articles, is as follows:

"Cree Indians were a monotonous culture until French and British settlers arrived."

What the author meant was that Cree Indians were a homogenous culture. So, before we get started on a conversation about definitions, when picking your words, if you run across words you don't use often, ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Can I spell the word correctly? Here's a hint. Open your favorite word processor and make sure active spell checking is turned on. Then type the word. If it comes up with an underline, your dictionary doesn't recognize it. Most word processors will allow you to Control-Click or Right-Click the term and look up a spelling suggestion.spell check
  2. What does this word mean? Second hint. Research the term online and find a consistent meaning. If you can't readily find a definition for the term don't use it. Try looking up the definition of "dialectical interface" above. If you find a definition, email the team at info@unifiedcompliance.com. We'd love to see it and know where you found it.search for definition
  3. Will the people I'm communicating with know what this word means? Will they have the same understanding of the meaning that I do? Third hint. Ask a few people who might read your writing if they know what your term means. You'll be surprised at the varied answers. We did this once with government writers working on a cybersecurity manual. We asked for the definition of Cybersecurity. Twelve people, thirteen answers - all different. One guy wrote two answers because he wasn't confident of either one of them.understanding definitions

If you don't know what you are talking about, no one else will either.


What Happens When We Communicate

To understand what's happening when we communicate, we need to understand what a concept is, what a term is, and what an instance means. Let's start this discussion with a quick illustrative point. You and I are sitting at a table. In front of us is the plate in the diagram that follows. One of us is from Chicago, the other from London. I say to you "may I have a biscuit?" Your answer is "of course". I then pick up which item(s)?

biscuit and cookies

A biscuit and cookies, or a scone and biscuits?

If I were from Chicago, that plate would contain one biscuit and two cookies. If I were from London, that plate would contain one scone and two biscuits. What's going on here is that

  1. we see two sets of instances of some type of food in front of us;
  2. those two instances are formed as concepts in our mind;
  3. and when we communicate about those concepts, we communicate them as terms.

instances, concepts, terms

Seeing an instance, thinking the concept, speaking the term

The concept of the big, soft, flaky, doughy thing has generally been given the term scone in England and biscuit in the US. The concept of the drier, smaller, crunchier things has generally been given the term biscuit in England and cookie in the US. When I asked for the biscuit, I've identified the term and the concept to me. It's when I reach for the biscuit that I tie the instance and the name together for both of us. And that's where the fun starts. You look at me and say "hey, I thought you wanted the biscuit/scone" (depending on where you are from). I would explain "yes, and I took one". We would both be baffled at the lack of the other's comprehension of what we know to be true. If we were friends, we'd probably continue with "I thought that was called…" and then add the term that goes with the concept in our mind. A quick sharing between us would bring out both concepts, both definitions of what we think we are looking at. And we'd do the same, probably, for the cookie/biscuit concepts of the instances we see. This is why it is important to know how to write good definitions. More on this later... We took an instance from reality and stated the term we have given to the definition of its concept. We have, for one bright shining moment, communicated with each other. Being from Chicago, while living in London for a period of time, I ended up simply using the definitions of things I'd point to; "can I have one of those  fluffy pastry things there…" I'd ask at the bakery. This is why defining your term is important.


The Importance of Defining Terms (part one)

There is a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw that follows along the lines "Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language". Whether or not the attribution is or isn't Shaw's, the point is that even though we use the same words, those words can (and often do) have quite distinctly different meanings because of our cultural differences1. There's even a British English vs. American English translation dictionary2!

UK to USA Dictionary

UK to US Dictionary

To put it short and sweet - words, the terms we use, do not have one correct meaning. Words can mean different things at different times. They come into existence to express thoughts by a group of people that share them, at a point in time, with a mean-ing that reflects their origin, use, and timeframe. Take, for instance, the word awful. Originally, that word meant "worthy of awe", as in "very inspiring". However, over time it has come to mean bad, displeasing, offensive, etc. A quick Google search will produce list upon list of terms that have changed over time3. More specifically, the words and phrases that you find in a dictionary exist to express these shared thoughts, which we'll refer to as concepts throughout this document. We won't go into the philosophical debate of whether concepts define words or do words define concepts, a debate that is currently plaguing educators today4, as it has been since the times of Plato and Socrates5. Nor will we spend time debating about specific definitions of terms, how the definitions morph over time, or the nature of, and demands on, definitions6. Instead this document will focus on how to fulfill the need to establish and maintain definitions for specific terms within specific subject fields7. There is an entire international standard dedicated this pursuit8, which we have drawn much of our inspiration from. The issue we are attempting to remedy in this document, is the tendency of each subject field to create its own sub-language of specific terms and their definitions. These terms might be shared with other subject fields, but quite often the definitions for these shared terms are different. And just as often, those in specific subject fields create new, distinct terms used to describe the same concept as other terms found in other subject fields. So, we end up with this:

Same words - different definitions.

Same definitions - different words.

If you want a real-word example, perform this Google search:

what is personally identifiable information?

The last time we performed this search, Google returned over 1.7 million entries with well over 100 definitions (we stopped counting about then)9. With this huuuuuuge list of potential definitions for a key term such as Personally Identifiable Information, you have to agree with us that the only way you can share your meaning is through how you use the term, and better yet, if you can provide a definition for the key terms you are using. In short, if you define your key terms, you'll clarify the concepts behind the terms you are using in that argument, in that document you wrote, or if they are added to some custom dictionary, in that specific field the dictionary covers.


  • 1 Garson, "Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language | Quote Investigator."
  • 2 Dervaes and Hunter, The UK to USA Dictionary British English vs. American English.
  • 3 "Word Meaning Changes over Time - Google Search."
  • 4 Jake Goldwasser, "Lexical Items and Concepts."
  • 5 Gupta, "Definitions."
  • 6 Locke and Nidditch, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
  • 7 Martinez, "Some Closure Properties of Finite Definitions"; Belnap, "On Rigorous Definitions."
  • 8 "ISO 704:2009 - Terminology Work -- Principles and Methods."
  • 9 "What Is Personally Identifiable Information - Google Search."

The Importance of Defining Terms (part two)

Yes, certain words have multiple meanings. We've covered the reason to define which meaning you are using if you think those you are communicating with will be befuddled. That's one reason to define what you are saying. The other is when you are creating new words. And let's face it - we do that more of-ten than you'd think. When we wrote about using words your audience doesn't know it was because we were pointing out you didn't know either. If you find yourself in a place where you are using words that others don't know - look up those words to see if someone has given them a definition. Look it up online and find a consistent meaning. If you can't readily find a definition for the term, then define it! Where do you think dictionary definitions come from? You. Me. Them. Everybody! (Everybody, needs somebody! Everybody - needs somebody to define! he laughingly sings...) Dictionaries are historical references There. I said it. But more importantly, so did John Simpson, former Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Here's a passage (edited for clarity) from a book he recently wrote10:

"It is easy to be too precipitate in selecting a word for inclusion in the dictionary… In general, we learned to shy away from trying to define any new word-wherever possible-until it had a chance to settle down in the language...it is helpful for us to see whether others publish preliminary accounts of the word from their own impressions or research. That's not cheating; it's just good research sense."

The simple point is this - if you want to use a term you can't find a definition for, you need to write that definition. And the great part is, if it is your word, your definition can't be wrong! These types of definitions are called Stipulative definitions, and we'll cover them in a bit.


  • 10 Simpson, The Word Detective. Page 107

What is a Definition?

In its simplest form, a definition is “a statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol1”. In other words, a definition explains through clarification and further explanation what we are trying to say with one or a few short words. Aristotle would say that the definition provides the essence (ὁρισμός horismos) of the term2.

Aristotle

Good ol' Aristotle spouting off philosophy

Well, that’s nice, but it isn’t that helpful unless you are a philosophy major who can spout out what essence means as part of dinner conversation. And even if you wanted to we’d rather you just stare blankly at your iPhone. So to start this off, let’s look at an example of a bad definition, one that just doesn’t fit the essence of the term it is supposed to describe. In our research we come across a great deal of bad definitions, many of which are found in published glossaries. For example, a technical glossary from the United States’ National Institute of Standards and Technology, their Glossary of key Information Security Terms, defines the term Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) as - a capability set up for the purpose of assisting in responding to computer security-related incidents. This term, absent of the definition, and because it describes a team, brings to mind a group of people who respond to computer security incidents. However, the presented definition egregiously leaves out the entire essence of team and replaces it with capability. Although the team in this definition should be comprised of individuals who possess the capability to respond to security incidents, the definition fails by mistaking a group for a capability.

The format of a well written definition

All of the reading we’ve done, all of the research we’ve done, except for Purdue’s Online Writing Lab example13 (which states you need to always start with the term, which we will ignore), breaks a definition down (roughly) into two parts, as shown below:

category of concept + differentiating characteristics

Or if you like to use scientific words:

genus + differentia

Category (genus)

This defines the category or class your concept fits into. In essence, you are relating the term to its broader category so that your audience says “yeah, I know what those are”.

Differentiating Characteristics (differentia) These are the specific characteristics that set your term apart from other terms within that category. Once you’ve related your term to the broader category, now you are saying “well, it’s like those things, but with these differences.” Most often, the category of the concept is presented first, followed by the differentiating characteristics. Other types of definitions will lead with what differentiates the concept and then show how it fits into the broader category. The best way to bring this point home is to give you some examples of the different types of definitions that are out there, using terms that we should all be familiar with. By doing this, we’ll be able to give you the definition and then point out how it was formulated. Let’s say that we were going to describe a Zebra using this method. We would say that a Zebra was a mammal in the family of Equidae (Equus) with black and white stripes and an erect mane.

Zebra defined using genus and differentia

If this were a conversation, you might be stating it like this; “Hey, you know what a horse is, right? Well this is in the family of horses, but they Zebras have black and white striped coats and short manes that stand straight up.” You are equating it to something they know and then adding the differences for this particular concept or thing. This is the basic form of a definition. Of course, folks can’t leave well enough alone, so they’ve created several kinds of definitions that you can either delve into or skip over.


  • 11 “Definition of DEFINITION.”
  • 12 There are two really nice papers on this, the first, Gibson’s PhD thesis, the other Blundon’s paper on subject and meaning. Gibson, “The Bottom of Things”; “The Subject. Aristotle: The First Subject, by Andy Blunden October 2005.”
  • 13 “Purdue OWL: Definitions.”
  • 14 LLC, “‘Extensional and Intensional Definitions’ on Revolvy.Com.”

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.


Types of Definitions Cheat Sheet

Okay, we’ve gone over all of the various types of definitions. You’ll want to keep this cheat sheet around so that you have a shortened version of what should go into each type of definition.

Intensional definitions (genus + differentia)

Begins with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it.
Continues with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category.

Extensional definitions

Lists as many objects, properties, or features as necessary that represent the concept or thing being described.
Explains how those objects, properties, or features fit into a more generalized cate-gory.

Lexical definitions

Begins with the setting, how the term is used in the document(s) it is drawn from, or the audience it is aimed at.

Places that setting into the context of the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it.

Continues with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category.

Partitive definitions

Begins by describing this particular concept or thing as a part of a greater whole.

Continues with the category that greater whole fits into.

Adds what makes this concept or thing different than the other parts of the same greater whole.

Functional definitions

Begins by explaining what the concept or thing does.

Continues by explaining how that role fits into a larger category with properties and other functions like it.

Encyclopedic definitions

Begins with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it.

Continues with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category.

Provides additional classification, history, etc. about the concept or thing for elucidation purposes.

Theoretical definitions

Begins with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it.

Continues with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category.

Continues with the theory of why this concept or thing fits into the category or why the differentiators are important.


How to Test Existing Definitions

Searching Google for a definition will almost undoubtedly return multiple definitions for the same term. And it isn’t just Google returning too many definitions. Many organizations that create glossaries for their documents are very sloppy with their terms – even the US’ National Institute of Standards and Technology! Just because someone wrote a definition, that doesn’t mean its correct. Heck, if the United States’ own National Institute of Science and Technology can write some pretty bad definitions in their glossaries – anyone can write bad definitions in theirs.

The test forms

Here are some forms for you to use when examining various definitions. We’ll use these forms to examine a few terms below.

Intensional Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?
Do all of those things that make it different belong to this concept?

Extensional Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition list as many objects, properties, or features as necessary that represent the concept or thing being described?
Do some of the items in the list not fit with the other items in the list?
Does the definition explain how those objects, properties, or features fit into a more generalized category?

Lexical Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin with the setting, how the term is used in the document(s) it is drawn from, or the audience it is aimed at?
Does the definition that setting into the context of the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?

Partitive Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin by describing this particular concept or thing as a part of a greater whole?
Does the definition continue with the category that greater whole fits into?
Does the definition add what makes this concept or thing different than the other parts of the same greater whole?

Functional Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin by explaining what the concept or thing does?
Does the definition continue by explaining how that role fits into a larger category with properties and other functions like it?
Does the function belong to this category?

Encyclopedic Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?
Does the definition provide additional classification, history, etc. about the concept or thing for elucidation purposes?

Theoretical Definitions

Term

Definition

Question

Y/N

Reason

Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?
Does the definition continue with the theory of why this concept or thing fits into the category or why the differentiators are important?

Testing terms

In researching terms relating to cybersecurity (a topic very close to our organization’s heart), we found that everyone agrees on what the definition of cyber means, there are two different definitions of security, and eight definitions of cybersecurity. So let’s go through the process of analyzing their definitions using the rules for testing the definitions that we listed above.

Testing Cyber

Term

Definition

Intensional Questions

Y/N

Reason

cyberThe interconnected information infrastructure of interactions among persons, processes, data, and information and communications technologies, along with the environment and conditions that influence those interactions.Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?YThat’s the part in the definition where it says “interconnected information infrastructure of interactions” – cyber at Dictionary.com reiterated the computer-connectedness of the category.
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?YAbsolutely.
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?YIt includes, mostly, the gamut of who and what is interconnected.
Do all of those things that make it different belong to this concept?Y

So we know that cyber works. The category works, the specifics work.

Testing dictionary v glossary definitions of security

We recently ran into two different definitions of security in two different glossaries. Both were much wordier than the dictionary definition of security. One, though wordy, was a good definition. The other, also wordy, had the wrong category altogether.

Term

Definition

Intensional Questions

Y/N

Reason

security (dictionary)Any measure that makes safe, protects, or defends something or someone.Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?YThe category here are all measures.
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?Y
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?YMeasures that make safe, measures that protect, measures that defend. Three differentia.
Do all of those things that make it different belong to this concept?Y

Functional Questions

security (glossary 1)A condition that results from the establishment and maintenance of protective measures that enable an enterprise to perform its mission or critical functions despite risks posed by threats to its use of information systems. Protective measures may involve a combination of deterrence, avoidance, prevention, detection, recovery, and correction that should form part of the enterprise’s risk management approach.Does the definition begin by explaining what the concept or thing does?YIt explains how the condition of being secure is met through the various protective measures.
Does the definition continue by explaining how that role fits into a larger category with properties and other functions like it?YThe second sentence is about all of the properties of “protective measures” that can be included.
Does the function belong to this category?Y

Intensional Questions

security (glossary 2)The protection of computer facilities, computer systems, and data stored on computer systems or transmitted via computer networks from loss, misuse, or unauthorized access. Computer security, as defined by Appendix III to OMB Circular A-130, involves the use of management, personnel, operational, and technical controls to ensure that systems and applications operate effectively and provide confidentiality, integrity, and availability.Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?YIt does begin with a category but see below.
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?NIf you read the second sentence, it says computer security. So when you go back and re-read the first sentence, the category makes sense if it was computer security but doesn’t make sense as a broad definition of security.

Testing definitions of cybersecurity

Much like the definition of security, we found multiple definitions of cybersecurity. It’s almost laughable that each and every glossary we encounter with cybersecurity in it, we encounter yet another different definition of the term. Let’s put the definitions to the test.

Term

Definition

Intensional Questions

Y/N

Reason

cybersecurity (glossary 1)Any measure used to protect or defend the use of cyberspace from cyber attacks.Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?YThe category here, like with the first definition of security, is measures specific to cyberspace.
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?Y
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?YMeasures that protect and defend against cyber attacks. The measures fit the category.
Do all of those things that make it different belong to this concept?Y

Intensional Questions

cybersecurity (glossary 2)The process of protecting information by preventing, detecting, and responding to attacks.Does the definition begin with the category, or properties and features shared by other concepts or things like it?YThe category is about the process of protecting, information.
Does this categorization make sense? Is the categorization blatantly wrong?NIt begins with a general security category of protection but skips the whole cyber aspect of it.
Does the definition continue with what makes this concept or thing is different than the other members of its category?YIt has the differentiator of “preventing, detecting, and responding to attacks”
Do all of those things that make it different belong to this concept?NThe differentiators are coupled with information protection. This really says that the definition is about information security and not cyber security.

Functional Questions

cybersecurity (glossary 3)The protection of information assets by addressing threats to information processed, stored, and transported by internetworked information systems.Does the definition begin by explaining what the concept or thing does?YAddressing threats to processed, stored, and transported information.
Does the definition continue by explaining how that role fits into a larger category with properties and other functions like it?YIt links these as a part of internetworked information systems.
Does the function belong to this category?YAs we learned with the term cyber, internetworked information systems fits that category.

Analyzing definitions isn’t that hard. Look for the term to fit a general category. Look for the differentiators. Follow the other questions for each of the definition types. You’ll be fine.


How to Write Simple Definitions

There are three steps to follow for creating simple definitions.

  1. Research the term. If you find an existing definition that you like it, use it (and cite the original author). If not, then follow the rest of these steps.
  2. Determine what the term’s concept is. Is it a noun, verb, pronoun, etc.? Or is it more distinct, some type of named entity? This designation will format your definition’s focus.
  3. Choose the definition type that fits; intensional, extensional, partitive, etc. Then craft the definition to fit designation and subject matter using a standardize format.

Step 0 – Limit Your Definitions to a Single Concept

If you can’t define the term in your mind to a single concept, then split the concepts into separate definitions. Think of report as both the sound of gunfire and calling the police to tell them about the sound of gunfire. That’s two definitions. One is a noun (the sound) the other is a verb (the act of calling or reporting). You have to define one concept at a time.


Step 1 - Research the Term

Here’s the scenario, you are writing whatever document it is and you’ve determined that you want to create a definition in your document. But your organization doesn’t have a definition for that term that you can draw from. So your first step in how to write a definition is to see if there’s a definition readily available that you can leverage (and cite so you aren’t plagiarizing). The Unified Compliance team is in that predicament quite often. Where do we find the definitions, what methods do we use to look for them? Our methodology works its way down from the most authoritative sources to the least authoritative sources. From absolute definitions down to definitions you will have to build out yourself (following standards set forth by international committees).

Searching dictionaries for single words

You might have luck searching the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, or any other host of online dictionaries for single word terms.

Dictionary

URL

Merriam-Webster

https://www.merriam-webster.com/

Oxford English Dictionary

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com

Cambridge

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/

Dictionary.com

http://www.dictionary.com/

However, searching for phrases, especially technical phrases, won’t work really well with this list of dictionaries. For that you’ll need to follow a different set of practices.

Searching dictionaries for phrases

Here’s a couple of real world scenarios for you from a technical document we were working with, the bolded terms being the ones you’d need to search for.

Usesession lockwithpattern-hiding displaysto prevent access/viewing of data afterperiod of inactivity.

Authorizeremote executionofprivileged commandsandremote accesstosecurity-relevant information.

With these two sentences, we now have the following phrases:

  • session lock
  • pattern-hiding display
  • period of inactivity
  • remote execution
  • privileged command
  • remote access
  • security-relevant information

Both Cambridge and Merriam-Webster found one of the terms listed above (remote access). However, none of them found the rest of the terms. Therefore, you’ll need to turn to searching more technical dictionaries and glossaries for technical phrases such as these.

Dictionary

URL

webopedia

http://www.webopedia.com/

TechTerms

https://techterms.com/

Computer Dictionary

http://www.computer-dictionary-online.org/

Free Online Dictionary of Computing

http://foldoc.org/

Business Dictionary

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/

Investopedia

http://www.investopedia.com/dictionary/

TechTarget’s Dictionary

http://whatis.techtarget.com/

The Law Dictionary

http://thelawdictionary.org/

However, even when searching the technical dictionaries above, only one term was found in one dictionary – “remote access” in webopedia. This means that you’ll need to turn more broader search engines, about 90% of the time. We’ll cover how to use search engines next for now, if you were lucky enough to find the definition, save the URL. You will need to add it to the definition as the source of where the definition came from.

Searching Google for phrases

The bad news is that over 90% of the terms you are going to have to add to the dictionary are phrases that don’t exist in any known glossary or dictionary entry. And as of this writing, most document authors fail to provide definitions for their key terms. Don’t worry yet, there’s one more search capability at your fingertips – searching Google’s definitions.

Here’s how to do it. You’ll want to enter terms in both singular and plural form, and if a term has a hyphen you’ll want to search for it with and without the hyphen. You want to use is and are because you are looking for definitions written within a document that aren’t in a glossary entry or definition of terms section. These definitions will be written within the context of the document’s content itself. Therefore, authors are most likely to state the terminology as saying, “X is this” or “many Ys are that”.

Base Term

Single form

Plural form

session lock

define “session lock is”

define “session locks are”

period of inactivity

define “period of inactivity is”

define “periods of inactivity are”

security-relevant information

define “security-relevant information is”

define "security relevant information is"

As an example, searching define “session lock is” turns up uses of the term, but no real definition of the term as shown in the diagram that follows:

Figure 1: A search for “session lock is”

However, searching for “session locks are” finds the definition in the very first search result Google returned, as shown below:

with the following definition

Figure 2: A search for “session locks are”

One of our researchers, Steven Murawski, adds that he has found some sticky definitions by typing "session lock" meaning or "session lock" definition. It works about 10% of the time, but it is worth noting if you can’t find anything else. If you found the definition, save the URL you will add it to the terminological entry as the source of where the definition came from.

This methodology works great for a few of the terms in our list. However, there wasn’t a single source that we searched for which had a solid definition for pattern-hiding display. So what do you do when you can’t find a source that specifically defines the term? You build the term’s definition following a well-defined international standard for doing so.


Step 2 - Determine the Term's Concept

The first thing you need to do is to place your term into the proper context. If you are in a discussion and need to define your term, you’ll be thinking about the discussion you are having, and what types of concepts are being bandied about. If you are writing a document, you’ll probably need to narrow the concept down to one. We’ll stick with you writing a definition for a document, and we’ll use the term pattern-hiding display. The document you are working with will form the subject field for the broadest context you are going to work with. The citation, no doubt, falls within a section of that document. And sections are broken down into various contexts within the document. Within that section, the Citation will provide the most specific context you are dealing with.

Figure 3: Broadest to narrowest concepts

Now let’s look at the phrase pattern-hiding display within the context of the document, the Section, and the Citation it was found in.

What

Context

Information Security Policy

Protecting Information

Section 3.1

Using Access Controls

3.1.10

pattern-hiding displays protect information by preventing viewing of data

From this, we know that the context is about hiding information from view is a form of access control that protects information. Got it. We know from our document that pattern-hiding displays are covered in the section on access controls. So we are pretty certain that the general category for our term is going to be access control. But on looking up the definition for access control, we found that it can cover physical access, computer system access, and information access as well. So we have several subcategories of access control that exist.

So let’s start a worksheet for adding the term, the term’s possible category, and any possible subcategories that we know of. Then we’ll see if they fit.

Term

Category

Subcategory

Fit?

pattern-hiding displayaccess controlphysical assetsN
computer systemN
informationY

In our context, neither computer system nor physical assets fit our genus. Therefore, we know that the context we have we are dealing with an information access control. But what type? That’s found in the attributes.

Identifying the attributes of the term

Now that you have the general category for the concept, you must examine the language for its attributes. When we talk about attributes in this document, we specifically mean the distinguishing features as derived from the words used and the context in which they are used.

Because you are going to be dealing with terms you’ve found in a Citation, the attributes are really the individual terms you are dealing with within the context of the document you are working with. If you have two words in a phrase, you have two attributes. In our scenario we have two words; pattern-hiding and display. Our attributes for this term are threefold:

  • information protection mechanism (from the context)
  • pattern-hiding (from the term)
  • display (from the term)

We now need to search for each term in the various dictionaries and check to see if there are any definitions that fit our context of information access control that we are dealing with. Searching dictionaries for either pattern-hiding or pattern hiding produces nothing on its own. Searching the web for either one produces some rough definitions of algorithms and software methodologies to obscure numbers or images on a screen.

Term

Category

Subcategory

Fit?

pattern-hidingsession lockConcealing information previously visible on a display.Y
prime numberArtificial numeric patterns that are embedded with previously thought to be random numbers.N
screen saver lockThe capability, when the computer is locked, to set the screen to black or display selected or random images or numbers.Y

Searching for display gives us a bunch of definitions. One of which is a computer monitor, another of which is the process or facility of presenting data or images on a computer screen or other device. Within the context of the Citation and its section, we can conclude that the characteristic isn’t about the monitor per se, but about the ability to display data or images.

Term

Category

Subcategory

Fit?

displayartA performance or show.N
assetsAn electronic device for the visual presentation of data.N
computingProcess or facility of presenting data or images on a computer screen or other device.Y

We now have a comprehensive view of what our concept is and one step closer to writing a good definition.

Term

Category

Subcategory

Attribute

pattern-hiding displayaccess controlinformation
pattern-hidingsession lockConcealing information previously visible on a display.
screen saver lockThe capability, when the computer is locked, to set the screen to black or display selected or random images or numbers.
displaycomputingProcess or facility of presenting data or images on a computer screen or other device.

Step 3 - Choosing the Definition Type

You need to start with the designation for the definition. You can’t define the concept unless you know what type of concept you are defining. Let’s put the research we’ve done into this section as a reference for our work here.

TermCategorySubcategoryAttribute
pattern-hiding displayaccess controlinformation
pattern-hidingsession lockConcealing information previously visible on a display.
screen saver lockThe capability, when the computer is locked, to set the screen to black or display selected or random images or numbers.
displaycomputingProcess or facility of presenting data or images on a computer screen or other device.

Choosing the definition designator

Designations are attributed to the concept you are defining, not the individual term. Designations for definitions fall into two categories: parts of speech designations and named entity designations. Parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, determiner, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, or interjection. As we will discuss later, named entities can be any of those entities we’ve already named; asset, data contents, events, group, organization, organizational function, person, record example, role, or title. Or they can be additional named entities that you have defined. We will ignore named entities for now. From our research here, we know that this isn’t a verb. It’s a noun. Simple.

TermDesignator
pattern-hiding displaynoun

Deciding on a definition type

Now its time to go back to the cheat sheet. We listed 7 different definition types. We are going to ignore all except the intensional definition because we are starting with simple definitions here. So we know that we’ll first be defining the genus of the term and then adding its differentia. We’ll do that in our worksheet for each of the attributes that we have.

TermDesignatorGenusAttribute
pattern-hiding displaynoun
pattern-hidingnounsession lock mechanismconceals information previously visible on the display
nounscreen saver mechanismsets the screen to black or displays selected or random images or numbers
displayverbcomputingpresenting data or images on a computer screen or other device

Formatting your definition

This is really just a matter of putting everything together.

TermDesignatorGenusAttributes
pattern-hiding displaynounA session lock or screen saver mechanism thatconceals information previously on the display by
setting the screen to black, or
displaying selected or random images or numbers.

And there you have it, you have learned how to write a definition. A pattern-hiding display is a session lock or screen saver mechanism that conceals information previously on the display by setting the screen to black or displaying selected or random images or numbers.


How to Write Advanced Definitions

There are six steps to follow for creating advanced definitions. The first three steps are the same as creating simple definitions, so we’ll skip these steps in the documentation that follows.

  1. Research the term. If you find an existing definition that you like it, use it (and cite the original author). If not, then follow the rest of these steps.
  2. Determine what the term’s concept is. Is it a noun, verb, pronoun, etc.? Or is it more distinct, some type of named entity? This designation will format your definition’s focus.
  3. Choose the definition type that fits; intensional, extensional, partitive, etc. Then craft the definition to fit designation and subject matter using a standardize format.
  4. Formalize the way you name the term.
  5. Add semantic relationships to the definition to connect it to other terms.
  6. Review your definition with your team and test it.

Step 4 - How to Formalize the Term Entry

We’ve already covered how to write definitions, the communication of the concept of an instance we see or think about. We’ve covered some pretty basic rules about definition types and what should and shouldn’t be in them. Now we have to cover a few rules about how to express the term itself. Why do we have to set rules? Because many people who create glossaries are just plain sloppy (they probably don’t even make their beds in the morning). They’ll have plural forms. Capitalization where none is called for. Unconventional spelling. And – most egregiously – they’ll also include acronyms as terms themselves. Ugh. In order for modern electronic glossaries and dictionaries to work with Natural Language Processing engines, the following rules for entering the term itself should be followed.

Enter terms as a base form only

If you aren’t aware, nouns and verbs have a base form and additional forms. Here they are:

Base FormOther Forms
Singular Non-Possessive NounPossessive
Plural
Plural Possessive
Simple Present VerbPast
Past Participle
Present Participle
Third Person

Here are the rules for both nouns and verbs.

Noun entry rules

  • All nouns are entered as singular (check irregular nouns).
  • Remove all apostrophes from the last word in a term or phrase.
  • Enter the term or phrase in lower case unless it is a proper noun
  • All terms with “non” in them should have the dash “non-” unless specified in the Oxford English Dictionary
  • NO acronyms should be added as terms, unless this is an acronym dictionary

Noun pluralization rules

Most nouns are pluralized by adding an –s to then end of a word. There are seven other pluralization rules that depend on what letter(s) the noun ends in.

  1. Most nouns add s to the end.

Examples: cat – cats; car – cars; team – teams

  1. If the noun ends in -ch, -sh, -s, -ss, -x, or -z  add  -es  to the end

Examples: church – churches; tax ­­­­– taxes; pass – passes

  1. If the noun ends in -for -fe change -f or -fe to -ves

Examples: elf – elves; loaf – loaves; thief – thieves

  1. If the noun ends in a vowel and -y add sto the end

Examples: toy – toys; boy – boys; employ – employs

  1. If the noun ends in a vowel and -o add s to the end

Examples: video – videos; studio – studios; zoo – zoos

  1. If the noun ends in a consonant and -ychange -y to -ies

Examples: baby – babies; country – countries; spy – spies

  1. If the noun ends in a consonant and -o add -esto the end

Examples: hero – heroes; potato – potatoes; volcano – volcanoes Irregular nouns follow none of these rules.

Verb entry rules

When adding verbs to the dictionary, ensure that you follow these rules:

  • Verbs are entered in simple present tense
  • Remove any conjugations. (check irregular verbs)
  • Enter the term or phrase in lower case.
Verb conjugation rules

Most verbs are conjugated by following these rules.

  1. Past tense: add –d,-ed, or –t to end of verb
  2. For verbs ending in –y change –y to -i and add -ed
  3. Past participle: add -d or –ed or –t to end of verb
  4. For verbs ending in –y change –y to -i and add -ed
  5. Present Participle: add -ing to end of verb
  6. For verbs ending in –e remove –e before adding –ing.

This rule excludes verbs ending in –ee. Verbs ending in –ee follow normal convention of adding –ing to the end.

  1. Third Person: add -s or -es to end of verb
  2. For verbs ending in –y change –y to -i and add -es

Irregular verbs, however, do not follow the rules for past and past participle conjugation. Verbs are irregular when their past tense and past participle forms are different from one another and those forms are not formed by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form.

Dealing with Irregular Verbs

Verbs are considered to be irregular when their past tense and past participle forms are different from one another and those forms are not formed by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form. Here are a few irregular verbs.

VerbPastPast participle
arisearosearisen
beginbeganbegun
catchcaughtcaught
dodiddone
fallfellfallen
gowentgone
hidehidhidden
laylaidlaid
lielaylain

There are great resources to learn more about irregular verbs online. One of them is here: http://speakspeak.com/resources/vocabulary-general-english/english-irregular-verbs The next step to writing advanced definitions is to add semantic relationships to the definiton.


Step 5 - Add Semantic Relationships to the Definition

Once you are finished with your definition you’ll need to place the new term into context with other terms. It allows your readers to see how terms interact with each other. It allows Natural Language Processing Engines to relate terms together. It is the core in pattern-matching for harmonizing regulatory structures to each other.

Basic semantic relationships

The following basic relationships have been taken from the Simple Knowledge Organization System’s (SKOS) Mapping Vocabulary Specification[1], as shown below.

Basic semantic relationships

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They offer the ability to distinguish subtle relationships between two terms. As stated in the specification, “Many knowledge organization systems, such as thesauri, taxonomies, classification schemes and subject heading systems, share a similar structure, and are used in similar applications. SKOS captures much of this similarity and makes it explicit, to enable data and technology sharing across diverse applications.”

has-exact-match

If two concepts are an exact match, then the set of resources properly indexed against the first concept is identical to the set of resources properly indexed against the second. Therefore, the two concepts may be interchanged in queries and subject-based indexes. (Is inverse with itself.)

has-broad-match

If “concept A has-broad-match concept B,” then the set of resources properly indexed against concept A is a subset of the set of resources properly indexed against concept B. (Is inverse of has-narrow-match.)

has-narrow-match

If “concept A has-narrow-match concept B,” then the set of resources properly indexed against concept A is a superset of the set of resources properly indexed against concept B. (Is inverse of has-broad-match.)

has-major-match

If “concept A has-major-match concept B,” then the set of resources properly indexed against concept A shares more than 50% of its members with the set of resources properly indexed against concept B. (No inverse relation can be inferred.)

has-minor-match

If “concept A has-minor-match concept B,” then the set of resources properly indexed against concept A shares less than 50% but greater than 0 of its members with the set of resources properly indexed against concept B. (No inverse relation can be inferred.)

The limitations with basic semantic relationships based off the SKOS model

The problem in the SKOS model is relationships are limited to a single term or a single phrase. This model is great if you want to know that draft or chart is the same as map or not as broad as interpret. Basically, you are limited to three categories for practical purposes; broader, same, and narrower as shown in the diagram below.

Visual SKOS Model

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What the SKOS and basic semantic relationship model doesn’t tell you is why interpret is a broader concept, or why scale is a narrower concept. What they don’t show are the linguistic relationships between the terms. To extend the relationships past broader, same, and narrower, you’ll need a more advanced semantic relationship system. It should consider real world relationships such as one concept being a category for another concept, or one concept enforcing another concept, or even one concept including another concept as a part of it (versus the parent being a category). The illustration that follows re-examines the semantic relationships of the term map, shown above, using a more advanced set of semantic relationships. These relationships provide a much more robust understanding of connecting terms than a simple broader, same as, and narrower model can provide. Advanced semantic relationships extend the model by adding linguistic and conceptual connections to each relationship.

Advanced semantic relationships

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Advanced Semantic Mappings

There are many more relationships you’ll need to put into place if you want to provide greater context for your readers or Natural Language Processing Engine. Here are a few more of the relationships you’ll need.

Synonyms and Antonyms instead of has-exact-match

Synonyms are broader than exact matches, as they extend the relationship to facts or states of having correlation, interrelation, materiality, conformity, and pertinence between concept A and concept B. And antonyms then have enough variability, incongruence, and disassociation to be their opposite. The antonym is the inverse of the synonym and vice versa.

Metonymy

Included in the type of synonyms is metonymy, the semantic relationship that exists between two words (or a word and an expression) in which one of the words is metaphorically used in place of the other word (or expression) in particular contexts to convey the same meaning. Included in the category of antonyms are complementary pairs, gradable pairs, and relational opposites[2].

Complementary pairs

Complementary pairs are antonyms in which the presence of one quality or state signifies the absence of the other and vice versa. A couple of samples are single/ married, not pregnant/pregnant. There are no intermediate states in complementary pairs.

Gradable pairs

Gradable pairs are antonyms which allow for a natural, gradual transition between two poles. A couple of examples are good/bad, hot/cold. It is possible to be a little cold or very cold, etc.

Relational opposites

Relational opposites are antonyms which share the same semantic features, only the focus, or direction, is reversed. A couple of examples are tied/untied, buy/sell, give/receive, teacher/pupil, father/son, and open/refrain from opening.

Non-standard forms of has-exact-match

A spigot and a faucet are two defined words that are exact matches, or synonyms, of each other. That’s an easy rule to implement. However, language is messy, and the uses of language within compliance documents is even messier. That’s why you must have advanced rules that go beyond synonyms for use cases such as a personal data request being called a request for personal data, an information request from the data controller, or even a request for information on the processing of personal data. To handle these types of use cases you must have a semantic rule that says “if the definition of a term-of-art matches the definition of a previously accepted dictionary term, the term-of-art should be considered an exact match and therefore be labelled a non-standard representation of the accepted term”.

Replacing the broad and narrow matches with more specific categorization

The major and minor relationships described in the SKOS model are limited to linguistic parents and their children (or half children as a minor match might be thought of). However, there are many relationships that are more specific that can and should be applied, especially when working with named entities and leveraging a Natural Language Processor’s named entity recognition engine. By replacing the simple broader and narrower matches with more specific categorization, you can achieve structures like those employed by the Compliance Dictionary, as shown below.

RelationshipDescriptionExamples
Linguistic ParentTerms that are linguistically broader than the focus term, including origins of terms.Term Senior Systems Analyst
Linguistic Parent – systems analyst, senior
Linguistic ChildTerms that are linguistically narrower than the focus term, including derivatives. This is the in-verse of Linguistic Parent.Term - systems analyst
Linguistic Child - Senior Systems Analyst
Category ForA term of which the focus term is a kind of.Term – tablet
Category For – portable electronic device
Type ofTerms that are kinds or examples of the focus term. This is the inverse of Category For.Term – portable electronic device
Type of – laptop
IncludesTerms the focus term is an element of. It is the same as hyponymy.Term – Personally Identifiable In-formation
Includes – mailing address, individual’s Social Security Number
Part ofTerms whose definitions are an element of the focus term. This is the inverse of IncludesTerm – Personally Identifiable Information
Part of – privacy related information
Used to CreateA term that is a template for or used to create the focus term.Term – UCF Mapper software
Used to Create – Authority Document mapping
Is Created byA term that is comes from or is generated by the focus term. This is the inverse of Used to Create.Term – system audit report
Is Created by – Secure Configuration Management Tool
Is Referenced byA term that mentions or references the focus term.Term – evidence           
Is Referenced by – probable cause
ReferencesA term that the focus term mentions or cites. This is the inverse of Is Referenced by.Term – evidence
References – business exception rule
Used to EnforceA term that uses the focus term to happen or cause compliance.Term – configuration rule
Used to Enforce system configuration
Is Enforced byA term that uses the focus term to happen or cause compliance. This is the inverse of Used to Enforce.Term – PCI-DSS
Is Enforced by – payment brand
Used to PreventA term that prevents the focus term.Term – sanctions
Used to Prevent-– unauthorized data processing
Is Prevented byA term that is prevented by the focus term. This is the inverse of Used to PreventTerm – stealing
Is Prevented by armed guard

Questions for analyzing the relationships of your terms

As of this writing, there isn’t a computer system that will automatically analyze terms, even in their context within a document, and determine what the relationships should be. At best, they are running between 40-45% accurate[3]. This means you’ll want to manually ask yourself the questions, which isn’t really that hard[4]. Here’s our cheat sheet for you.

Relation TypeQuestions
SynonymsHave you seen this term spelled differently?
Have you seen this term written completely different (Personally Identifiable Information/individual’s non-public data)?
Is this a metaphor for another term?
Are there metaphors for this term?
AntonymsAre there any qualities of this term that signify the absence of qualities of another term (single/married)?
Could this term be graded on a spectrum (hot/cold)?
Is there an opposite relationship of this term (tied/untied)?
Category ofWhat terms fall under this category?
Type ofAre there any other examples of this term?
IncludesWhat does this term include?
Part ofIs this term a part of a greater whole?
ReferencesDoes this term refer to other terms?
Is this term referenced by other terms?

By creating semantic relationships to your definitions, the reader will be able to understand how the term works with other terms.


[1] https://www.w3.org/2004/02/skos/mapping/spec/ and https://www.w3.org/TR/skos-reference/
[2] “Linguistics 201: Study Sheet for Semantics.”
[3] Malaise, Zweigenbaum, and Bachimont, “Detecting Semantic Relations between Terms in Definitions.”
[4] Storey, “Understanding Semantic Relationships.”


Step 6 – Reviewing Your Definitions

Read your definition and make sure that it agrees with the word and the sense you are trying to define. Testing your definition on the format we wrote earlier. In math, the substitution principle refers to the useful practice of replacing instances of a variable with a different variable. In definitions, it should be possible to replace a word in a definition by that word’s own definition without obtaining an unsatisfactory result[1]. For instance, if we were to use the substitution principle to examine covered entity, we would take the simple definition below:

TermDefinition
covered entityHealthcare providers who transmit health information.

and replace key terms, such as healthcare provider, transmit, and health information.

TermDefinition
covered entityHealthcare providers [individuals and organizations that provide healthcare services] who transmit [to send or cause something to pass on from one place or person to another] health information [Any information, including demographic information collected from an individual, that: (1) is created or received by a health care provider, health plan, employer, or health care clearinghouse; and (2) relates to the past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition of an individual; the provision of health care to an individual; or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to an individual; and (i) that identifies the individual; or (ii) with respect to which there is a reasonable basis to believe the information can be used to identify the individual].

Verbose, but it works. The term doesn’t circle back on itself, begins with the category, and ends with the characteristics. It’s a good definition.


[1] Svensén, A Handbook of Lexicography.


How to Write Definitions for Specific Circumstances

We’ve established that in order to communicate clearly and effectively, we need to define our terms. Great. Got that out of the way. We’ve covered what a definition is, and generally how it is formatted with both category and differentiator content. Coolio (which means really great according to Dorian’s nieces and nephews). Now it’s time to look at how definitions are presented to people in writing. The scholars out there who talk about these things call all of these entries, collectively, terminological entries. And because we couldn’t think of anything easier to call them, that’s what we’ll call them too. We are going to divide terminological entries into three types, from the least formal to the most formal; conversational entries, glossary entries, and custom dictionary entries. Why custom dictionary entries? Simple. We, collectively, aren’t the editors of Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary. But we can be editors of other dictionaries, custom dictionaries.


What are Conversational Entries?

Conversational definitions are those definitions wherein you write the definition into the normal discourse. A quick search of Wordnik (https://www.wordnik.com), the world’s largest online dictionary (as measured by numbers of words) run by Erin McKean, shows how they pick up and enter definitions through conversational definitions.

The term in question is deepfake. It was picked up by Wordnik and reported in their Word Buzz Wednesday blog entry, taken from the New York Times20. As you can see in the illustration below, the term deepfake was bracketed with quotes and then the definition immediately follows.

deepfake

Through what we see here, conversational definitions have two parts; the term and the definition, without formally introducing either one, and without any cataloging of the terms.

To write conversational entries, follow steps 1 through 3 of how to write definitions.


  • 20 “Word Buzz Wednesday: Deepfake, Shimming, Gluggaveður | Wordnik.” Accessed April 13, 2018. https://blog.wordnik.com/word-buzz-wednesday-deepfake-shimming-gluggavedur, https://blog.wordnik.com/word-buzz-wednesday-deepfake-shimming-gluggavedur.

What are Snippet Entries?

Google takes conversational entries one step farther. These are fantastic if you want to drive a point home to the search universe as our team at Unified Compliance have done with the answer to “what is Unified Compliance”. When you search in Google with the phrase “what is/are XXX”, Google looks for either formal dictionary definitions of the term (first) and then if it can’t find one, will search for the most authoritative snippet of the term it can find. It then shows a search result in a special featured snippet block at the top of the search results page. This featured snippet block includes a summary of the answer, extracted from a webpage, plus a link to the page, the page title and URL as shown in the illustration below.

Searching what is Unified Compliance in Google

How do those get there? When Google recognizes that a query asks a question, it programmatically detects pages that answer the user's question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results16. Can you mark a page as a featured snippet so that Google can find it easier? Sorry, Google programmatically determines that a page contains a likely answer to the user's question, and displays the result as a featured snippet. You can’t code your way into owning definitions. You can, however, be the authoritative source for those definitions if you write your snippet as a definition!

Here’s how the Unified Compliance team did it. We wrote a page that we specifically designed to be a definition page for the term Unified Compliance. We wrote above the definition “What is Unified Compliance?”, thus asking the question. We then answered the question in the form of a conversational definition. We supplied the term first “Unified Compliance”, followed by is (which acts as the separator between the term and the definition, and then followed that with the definition itself.

What is Unified Compliance?

Like all good definitions, we began with the category into which the term fit, followed by the differentiators for the term. We even put bullet points in front of each differentiator for emphasis. The illustration above shows the page with the term and the definition called out.

To write snippet entries, follow steps 1 through 3 of how to write definitions.


How to Automate Glossary Creation

There is a new methodology for technical authors who do not want to equivocate about what they meant when writing whatever technical document it is they are writing. The Unified Compliance team have developed a verb and noun tagging and definition selection tool, shown below. The process is simple. When writing, the author tags the verbs and nouns they want to select definitions for, for that instance (knowing that terms such as report can mean many things, even within the same sentence).

UCF Mapper tagging and definition process

Once the term has been tagged as either a verb or a noun, the system displays all of the definitions in the dictionary for that verb or that noun. Because the system is tied to an AI-based Natural Language Processing Engine, the system will automatically suggest the definition most used in the context of the sentence presented for tagging and matching. Once the terms have been tagged and the definitions selected, the tagging is hidden to readers but exposed to computer systems. This can generate pop-ups showing the definition for the term as it was tagged by the author. Or, as is the case with each document the Unified Compliance team manages, the system can automatically create a glossary of verbs and nouns for the document in question. Which, by the way, sometimes produces somewhat humorous results. One of our clients used the system to create a document written by multiple authors. The same term, only used six times in the document, had three different definitions selected. That’s because the different authors selected different definitions. Since that point we’ve changed the software so that once a definition has been selected in the document, it is a bit more insistent that the same definition be used in the same context. This is a great tool for technical documents, regulatory documents, etc. in that there is no equivocation about what the author meant for any verb or noun the author wishes to select a definition for. Each word is tagged. Each definition is assigned. No doubt about what was meant. And the tagging and definitions follow the electronic format of that document forever. For more information on using this tool, please contact the Unified Compliance team.


What are Dictionary Entries?

Dictionary entries have grown in complexity over the past several years due to the restraint of physical printing being removed. Originally, as John Simpson pointed out several times in The Word Detective22, definitions had to be as concise as possible, owing to the need to conserve printed space. Electronic and online dictionaries don’t have such a restriction. Computer storage space, even on mobile phones, has grown exponentially year after year. The only restrictions on space now are those of the screen on which the dictionary is being presented.

Dictionaries will always have the first three categories of content, just like glossaries. However, given that electronic dictionaries are no longer constrained by printed size, many will have additional content that includes the various types of definitions.

1. Term or lemma – This is the term that will be defined. Lemma is the fancy word lexicographers give the term. Dictionaries always list their terms following strict capitalization rules.

2. Pronunciation helpers – Some dictionaries will have a small speaker () next to the term’s entry. When pressed, the term will be spoken out loud to assist the reader in understanding how to vocalize the term. Other dictionaries will have a syllable breakdown of the term entry, such as the breakdown for dictionary [dik-shuh-ner-ee]. This was the original pronunciation helper.

3. Preferred, nonstandard, and alternate spelling variants– Not many dictionaries, as of yet, contain these categories of data. Preferred terms are those terms normally found within a manual of style. The manual of style will list certain terms to use instead of other, like, terms. Nonstandard variants have entered the dictionary world as a part of analyzing various sets of corpora (the documents you are using and drawing terms from) and determining that the writers are using differing terms with the same definitions. The nonstandard variants are those outlying term uses that get added to dictionaries to let the Natural Language Processing engines know that personal data and individual’s information are the same thing. Alternate spelling variants are those versions where the US spells organization with a “z” and the UK spells organization with an “s”.

4. Acronym – Some dictionaries will place the acronym on a line below the term entry. Others will simply follow the term entry with the acronym in parentheses.

5. Designator and Definition – Dictionary definitions are more stringent than glossary definitions. Dictionary definitions will always begin with the definition’s designator. A designator is needed because some terms have multiple definitions, such as the term report (it is has multiple definitions for both noun and verb). All dictionaries will list whether the definition that follows is a noun, pronoun, adjective, determiner, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, or interjection. Custom dictionaries will take this concept farther and will list whether the definition fits any specific type of named entity (we cover those later).

6. Attribution – Many online dictionaries, such as Wordnik and Compliance Dictionary will include definitions from multiple sources. When including definitions from multiple sources, these dictionaries will include the source’s attribution along with the definition.

7. Related forms – Any electronic dictionary that is built with the intention of working with Natural Language Processing Engines will also include all of the other forms that the term can take. The most common being plurals and possessives for nouns and all of the various verb tenses.

8. Relationships – Most dictionaries will list each term’s synonyms and antonyms. Dictionaries that also blend in a thesaurus, will add additional terms related to the primary term. As of this writing, only Compliance Dictionary lists advanced semantic relationships such as category of, part of, used to enforce, references, manages, used to create, etc. These advanced semantic relationships are necessary for Natural Language Processing engines’ understanding of named entity relationships of terms.

9. Examples of use – Examples of use are wonderful. And with modern “document scraping” software, once a term has been identified, examples can be found in the dictionary’s corpus and brought to the forefront.

10. Reverse lookup – These are terms that the scraping engine of the dictionary has found that use the primary term in their definition.

11. Etymology – Some dictionaries will list the term’s origin, showing which parts of the term originated when and where and how the term has evolved.

12. Visuals – Some of the newer online dictionaries, like Wordnik, will also have pictures and illustrations of the term listed with the definitions. They say a picture is worth a thousand words...

Not every dictionary will have every item. Wordnik, for example, has most of these items, but doesn’t have the named entity recognition designators, or the advanced semantic relationships that go with them. ComplianceDictionary doesn’t have the reverse lookup, etymology, or visuals.

A sample dictionary entry from ComplianceDictionary.com

To write custom dictionary entries, follow steps 1 through 6 of how to write definitions.


  • 22 Simpson, The Word Detective.

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