One of the most important tasks for senior contributors at Wiktionary is the improvement of English definitions. English word definitions are vital directly for those using Wiktionary as a monolingual dictionary, for those building the rest of the content, including translations, and for those using wiktionary as a translation dictionary.
Wiktionary benefits from the addition of definitions from out-of-copyright dictionaries and from the contributions of many users, most with no particular background in writing definitions. Both sources provide the opportunity and need for improvement. Wiktionary includes a great number of definitions from Websters 1913 and Century, both approaching a hundred years in age. The wording of the senses is often obsolete and needs substantial revision. Sometimes the sense division does not correspond to modern use of the defined word. Often the usage examples obscure rather than clarify.
The contributions of amateurs have a completely different set of issues. Sometimes the definitions are actually more modern rewordings of existing definitions, but with quality defects. Sometimes the definitions are specializations of existing senses. Sometimes they are taken from technical glossaries.
- 1 The basics
- 2 Understanding an existing definition
- 3 Grammar
- 4 Splitting definitions to other headwords
- 5 Splitting senses
- 6 Combining senses
- 7 Grouping senses
- 8 Usage examples
All definitions should have a few characteristics:
- The part of speech should correspond to the usage.
- The wording of the definition should correspond to the part of speech.
- The wording of a gloss-type definition should be substitutable, ie, the exact wording of the definition (excluding "to (“for verbs”)", "the", and a/an) should be grammatically and semantically correct when substituted into a sentence. It should be substitutable at least in a canonical sentence, especially in the most common syntactic position the term assumes. For "undefinable" terms, use non-gloss definitions. (See below under this heading.)
- The definition should not force the user (of EN-3 or better) to jump to another page to understand.
- If a user goes to another page he should not end up on a purely circular set of definitions.
- The definition should be a phrase, not be a mere one-word synonym unless it is a very simple synonym indeed. But, if the definiendum (“term being defined”) is archaic, obsolete, or rare in contemporary use, then a modern synonym may be sufficient. But a modern synonym may have many more senses that the term it defines or may not cover some of the senses of the definiendum, in which case one or more other synonyms or defining phrases should be found.
- If a word is "undefinable" as, for example, a grammatical word like a basic preposition ("in", "of", "by"), the definition can be a non-gloss definition that explains how the word is used. Some kinds of terms benefit from an "ostensive" definition, ie, a picture: photograph or drawing; a sound file; a text example: dialog situation, linguistic example. In the case of many terms, especially most proper nouns, a reference to Wikipedia or another sister project may be more useful than a paragraph-long "definition".
- There should be usage examples with contemporary usage, unless such usage is nonexistent or rare and the context so indicates.
- There should be context tags that explain where the term is used.
Any deficiencies in this regard should be remedied.