Are we talking the same language?

The Necessity of definitions in Articles

This is going to sound silly for many in the academia as it is second nature, but it is going to be useful for someone just starting out to write academic texts. These include essays or assignments at a tertiary level.

This has to do with the definition of terms section found in almost every journal article. This section may be clearly indicated by a heading, or it could be a paragraph.

But is it necessary considering that:

  • The targeted audience of these research articles are educated enough;
  • The terms defined could be commonplace in a given discipline?
  • There are now many technical dictionaries and encyclopaedias dedicated to not only defining these terms, but putting them into context for a given discipline? Certainly these are valid points a student might have.

But then:

Language is not as unambiguous as we would like to believe

The first rule we were all taught while in school is that, when you hear a word you are not familiar with, do either of the following two things:

  1. Use the context to deduce the meaning. In most cases this worked. In fact, this is how most of us end up gaining confidence with any new language.
  2. Or, if this does not work, considering that context may be misleading1, then use the dictionary.

We know that natural languages—those used by humans rather than programming languages for the computers—are dynamic. Words have a tendency to acquire meaning based on location, the speaker, the tone and even the audience.

Mastering this property of language flexibility is the craft of poetry. Poetry appeals to our senses because it is able to capture our imaginations and transport us to some places based on words we use everyday, accompanied by rhyme.

Thus, while natural languages are ambiguous, this is their strengths: we are able to conduct a conversation without being strict about meanings.

Yet in research, we have to be unambiguous as much as possible

  • When people argue about religion, they often debate some doctrines: what they mean based on a holy writ.
  • When they argue about politics, terms such as “democracy”, “rule of law”, “free and fair election” are often used.
  • When it is a debate on access to education, we argue over “quality education”, “access for all”.

But did you ever pause to think that perhaps, even in a small group of two people, while using the same terms, they are attributing different meanings to them.

Take the case of “Disability” for example:

  • Sometimes its meaning depends with who is talking.
  • If a person has a disability, chances are high that they may be referring to their own disability.
  • If they don’t have, chances are they are thinking of someone with a disability of some kind.
  • When talking to someone else, with a different perception of disability, they may end up talking of two different things, yet on the surface they would be convinced that they are talking of the same thing.

So to remove these ambiguities, it is important that any piece of writing intended for academic consumption spell out its key terms.

Bearing in mind that these writings are often intended to guide policy formulation or develop new theories, it is only helpful that the researcher from the onset states her or his understanding of the key terms.

Nothing is supposed to rely on contextual interpretation when it is an input of public policy. This explains why even most statutes provide sections or articles to define how certain keywords are to be interpreted.

Where do these definitions come from?

Research is a work of generations: what this generation understands, it does so as deposited by those that came before it.

While a scholar or researcher is free to arbitrarily impose a definition, in most cases definitions are taken from related literature.

This is another function of a literature review2, it is there to lay the framework for interpreting key terms in a discipline. In this regard, terms that are often used would have come from some other scholars. Some of these scholars would be key to laying a firm foundation for a field.

So if you are a student, before writing out your essay,

  • Identify the key terms that will determine your essay main points.
  • Find out how these key terms are defined in your major texts or journals.
  • Consider writing them down as you understand them.
  • Paraphrase these definitions and finally,
  • For each definition, acknowledge the source.

So each time you write a key definition, you must attribute the author of that definition. This is true whether you write it in its paraphrased form or in a direct quotation.


A definition of terms section is not a redundant section. It is there to address ambiguities. It does not do that a research, instead of removing doubts about a particular topic introduces some in the process of the write-up. Hence a definition of terms helps clear up street lingo from discipline jargon.

  1. Sometimes you hear a word in a context where the user of the word may have used it wrongly. So a dictionary lookup will do the trick: you get to know when someone misuses a term. But how many times were we caught unaware when sticking to these two rules? ↩︎

  2. A literature review is often conducted prior to collection of data. It may be instrumental in generating research questions one has to use during data collection. ↩︎