Definitions are a core part of any dictionary, and Wiktionary is no exception. Writing basic definitions requires some skill, more practice, and sometimes help.
There are a few basic guidelines to follow when writing a definition:
- Just the (dictionary) facts
- Wiktionary is a dictionary, not an encyclopedia. A definition does not need to contain every piece of information known about a subject. Rather, it should contain information about the word and what the word refers to, and enough explanation to allow a user to distinguish that word from most other words.
- Don't include usage notes in a definition. If additional clarification is needed to separate a term from other words with a similar meaning, then Usage notes can be added.
- Keep it simple
- Write with simple grammatical structures rather than complicated ones. Limit the use of dependent clauses and phrases, whether set off by commas (or parenthetical). If many such additional modifications are needed in a definition, then that definition probably needs a thorough rewrite.
- Place key terms and short explanations near the start of the definition. If a definition requires qualifications and modifying phrases, then try to place those near the end of the definition, after the main point has been made.
- Avoid bombast, and get to the point. Padding an entry with superfluous verbiage may sound impressive, but that's not the purpose of a definition. Clarity, brevity, and conciseness are better when writing definitions.
- Avoid complicated terms
- Avoid terms that are more complicated or more technical than the term being defined. The purpose of a definition is to clarify meaning, not to obfuscate it.
- Avoid polysyllabic monstrosities in the amalgamation of lexicographic phraseology. Don't use big words if you can avoid them. They may be fun, but in a definition they tend to confuse people more than help them.
- Avoid specialized terms
- Use mainstream English words in explanations whenever possible. The more widespread a term is, the more users will benefit. Terms with restricted usage may leave a significant fraction of Wiktionary's readership clueless.
- Avoid jargon. Highly technical terms will probably require a user to look up many terms in the definition just to understand what it says. Although there are cases which require the use of a technical term in a specialized field, these should be kept to a minimum.
- Avoid words whose use is restricted to certain geographic regions, social or ethnic groups, or that might otherwise leave many readers confused.
- Avoid circularity
- It is poor form to define a word with that same word in the definition. Use different terms.
- Avoid defining a term solely using etymologically or morphologically related terms. Adverbs are especially prone to being defined by the adjective from which they derive. While it is possible to define words this way, definitions ideally should stand on their own.
- Check the primary words in the definition to see whether any point right back at the term being defined. If two entries are defined solely or primarily as each other, then there will be no basis for a reader to understand either definition.
Numbering definitions: Each definition line should begin with a # (hash, octothorpe, pound sign). This will number the definitions. Place the hash at the leftmost position on the line, with no spaces or tabs prior to the hash. Additional definitions must be placed on a separate line, but there should be no blank lines within a group of definitions, since that will break the sequence of the numbering.
There are two basic styles of definition:
- In explanatory style, beginning with a capitalized first letter and ending in a period.
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Most English entries follow the first style, so that their definitions should begin with a capital letter and end with a period. In other words, such definitions are formatted as if they were sentences, even if they are actually sentence fragments. In contrast, most non-English entries follow the second style, since they typically translate the non-English word to one (or a few) English terms. However, there are non-English terms defined in the first style, especially when the term has no simple or straightforward English translation, and so it must be explained fully rather than just translated.
Definitions with more than one explanation: When a definition consists of more than one parallel explanation, the parts may be separated by commas or by semicolons. Commas are preferred in separating short and simple items, but semicolons are preferred when separating longer defining phrases or clauses.
Linking: One of the more powerful tools at the disposal of Wiktionary is the wikilink. Key terms in a definition should be linked by the use of double square brackets (i.e. [[word]]) around the term. This creates a link to the entry for that term.
Links should always be present around any word in the definition that is synonymous, or nearly synonymous with the term being defined. Likewise, link words which provide key descriptions or qualifications in defining a term. However, do not link every word in a definition. Linking all the words detracts from the visual emphasis that a wikilink provides, and creates visual confusion. Articles, prepositions, conjunctions, particles, and other short words should never be linked unless they are synonyms or translations of the term being defined.
When the explanatory style of definition writing is used, special care must be taken to link the capitalized first word in the definition. Wiktionary is case sensitive, so a simple link of the first word will often yield a red (broken) link, or may link to a German noun that happens to be spelled the same way. In these cases, the link must be "piped", as in the example: [[bridge|Bridge]]. This links to the first (lower-case) word while displaying the second (capitalized) word.
Part of speech variations
The wording in a definition depends on the part of speech of the word being defined. Nouns, especially proper nouns, are considered the easiest, followed by adjectives, and verbs. The most difficult words are included in the other parts of speech, especially those with purely grammatical functions like prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, articles, and particles.
If a proper noun meets our standards for inclusion (WT:CFI), its definition should be relatively easy. If it seems to be difficult, insert a link to Wikipedia, follow the link to an article of that title if one exists or search for the term in other Wikipedia articles.
Concrete nouns are the next relatively easy class. Wikipedia may have an article. Wikicommons may have photographs or drawings. The insertion of photographs or drawings may reduce the need for users to rely on the words of a definition for the basics, allowing the definition to address questions of the boundaries of the term instead.
Abstract nouns are more challenging. Within this class the most challenging are core abstractions such as "time", basic emotions, etc. The easiest abstract nouns are those that are definable in terms of the most basic ones. Fortunately, few people will rely on a dictionary for the core abstractions. Definitions can be used to define the scope of the term, its boundaries, rather than attempting to define its essence.
Grammatical parts of speech
Grammatical parts of speech include all conjunctions, pronouns, determiners, prepositions, articles and particles, and most of the most common adverbs. Such words are often very hard to define in the same way as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs derived from adjectives. If a particular word of this type cannot readily be defined, for example, by a synonym, consider a "non-gloss definition". Such a definition would typically begin with words such as "Used to indicate ....". Such a definition needs usage examples or citations even more than other definitions do. To facilitate review of such challenging definitions, please put the definition inside
Interjections are not grammatical parts of speech, but also may not be easy to define. If a particular word of this type cannot readily be defined, for example, by a well-known synonym, consider a "non-gloss definition". Such a definition would typically begin with words such as "Used to express...", followed by a noun or noun phrase suggesting an emotion. Such a definition may need usage examples or citations even more than other definitions do. To facilitate review of such challenging definitions, please put the definition inside
Context / Usage tags