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It is sometimes necessary to define one or more of the terms used in academic writing, in order to make the meaning clear, and also, in some cases, to demonstrate understanding to an examiner. Sometimes, when giving a definition, it may also be necessary to classify, which is looked at in the next section. This page gives information on how to write a definition and language for definitions.

How to write a definition

The most common way to write a definition in academic writing is to used a relative clause. See the following examples.

  • Academic English is the branch of English which is used in formal settings, for example at university.
  • Tertiary education may be defined as the period of study which is spent at university.
  • A university is a place where students go to study after finishing secondary education.
  • A teacher is a person who is engaged in educating students, usually at a school.

In each case, the following structure is used:

  • Word to be defined + verb + category + wh-word + characteristics

In the examples above, the verbs 'is' and 'may be defined as' are used. The categories are 'branch of English', 'period of study', 'place' and 'person'. The wh-words are 'which', 'where' and 'who'. Remember that 'which' is used for objects and animals, 'where' is used for places, while 'who' is used for people.

Language for definitions

In addition to the relative clause language given above, the following phrases are useful.

  • X may be defined as...
  • X is concerned with...
  • X deals with...
  • X relates to...
  • X involves...


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Below is a checklist for classification. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.

Item OK? Comment
The definition uses an appropriate verb (e.g. is..., may be defined as...)
The definition has an appropriate category (e.g. place, person)
The definition uses an appropriate wh-word (e.g. which for objects, who for people)
Other language for definitions is accurate

Next section

Find out how more about classifications in the next section.

Previous section

Go back to the previous section about critical writing.

Author: Sheldon Smith. Last modified: 16 September 2016.


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