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Writing Well

You Could Look It Up: Definition

The Greek philosopher Plato defined man as “a featherless biped.” When his rival, the philosopher Diogenes, heard Plato's definition, he displayed a plucked chicken and observed, “Here is Plato's man.” Quick on the draw, Plato added “having broad nails” to his original definition. Plato's blunder can help us today: If your definition doesn't set the objects off from others in the same class, refine the characteristics until they do.

You can tell whether a definition is valid if it's true when reversed. In Plato's case, for instance, all broad-nailed featherless bipeds are men or women (and not plucked chickens).

Word Watch

A word's history is its etymology.

Here are some ways to construct a definition passage or essay:

  • List characteristics of a thing beyond what you need to just identify it.
  • Define the whole by naming its parts.
  • Define the object by tracing its origins.
  • Give synonyms for the concept or object being defined.
Author! Author!

Here's how the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson defined hope:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
—“Poem 254”

The following paragraph uses the history of “Melba toast” to define the term:

Toast of the Town

  • Have you ever wondered how Melba toast got its name? It was named after Nellie Melba, a famous Australian soprano of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The prima donna was staying at the Savoy Hotel in London and following a stringent diet. According to the legend, she was living on almost nothing but toast. Normally she was served her meals by the famous French chef and food writer Auguste Escoffier, but on one particular occasion the master chef was busy elsewhere, so the great lady's toast had to be prepared by one of the sous chefs. Probably more used to preparing timbales than toast, the assistant bungled the job. When the hapless waiter served the toast to Nellie Melba, the head steward rushed forward to offer his heartfelt apologies at the debacle. But before the head steward could reach her, Nellie exclaimed, “How clever of Escoffier! I have never tasted such lovely toast!” Ever since then, these crisp, thin slices of toast have been known as “Melba toast.”
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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