Definitions and Glosses

Definitions and Glosses

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A definition is a phrase or sentence (or more) that explains the meaning of a term, and a gloss is a brief definition offered parenthetically after the term. This post includes examples of sentences in which definitions and glosses are erroneously presented. Discussion after each sentence explains the error, and a revision demonstrates the correct treatment.

1. The term uncertainty is defined as not knowing how or if potential events may manifest themselves in the context of achieving future objectives and business strategies.

Enclose explicit definitions (those preceded by means, “is defined as,” and the like) in quotation marks to signal that the definition is the exact wording from another source: “The term uncertainty is defined as ‘not knowing how or if potential events may manifest themselves in the context of achieving future objectives and business strategies.’”

2. The organization defines “relevant information” as information that facilitates informed decision-making.

This sentence is constructed differently from the previous example, but the rule is the same: “The organization defines ‘relevant information’ as ‘information that facilitates informed decision-making.’” (In this case, because the term consists of more than one word, it is enclosed in quotation marks as well, rather than italicized.) However, if a definition follows is or another form of “to be,” do not set it off in quotation marks: “Relevant information is information that facilitates informed decision-making.”

Note, too, that in this sentence, “relevant information” is treated as the thing itself, not the term for the thing, so the phrase is not set off with quotation marks. However, in some sentence constructions, the word or phrase may be emphasized because it is a reference to the term itself, and not the concept, while the definition is not treated as a quotation; see, for example, “‘Relevant information’ refers to information that facilitates informed decision-making.”

3. Administrative adjudication is one of several methods the agency may use to enforce compliance with federal consumer financial laws; it refers to the process by which an administrative agency engages in an adversarial proceeding with a supervised party.

“Administrative adjudication” is referred to here as a concept, but “it refers to” implies that the reference is to the phrase for the concept, like “relevant information” in the parenthetical example in the discussion above. (Also, compare “A pencil is a writing instrument” and “Pencil denotes a writing instrument.”) It is equivalent to the concept, not the term for it, so the phrase preceding the definition must be revised to reflect this: “Administrative adjudication is one of several methods the agency may use to enforce compliance with federal consumer financial laws; the term refers to the process by which an administrative agency engages in an adversarial proceeding with a supervised party.”

4. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four canonical gospels to mention the Wise Men, or Magi, makes no mention of the number who came to worship the baby Jesus.

Here, two designations for the same thing, the group of men said to have visited Jesus shortly after his birth, are described, but it makes no sense to first provide the more transparent of the two terms, followed by the more esoteric one. The designation that is more well known should be offered as a subsequent gloss, or brief definition, of the more obscure term: “The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four canonical gospels to mention the Magi, or Wise Men, makes no mention of the number who came to worship the baby Jesus.”

5. Alice in Wonderland syndrome, or micropsia, is a neurological disease that affects the visual cortex and makes you see things much, much smaller than they really are.

Again, why include a more technical term in addition to a vernacular alternative unless it is introduced first, followed by the more familiar or accessible name as a gloss? Revise as shown here: “Micropsia, or Alice in Wonderland syndrome, is a neurological disease that affects the visual cortex and makes you see things much, much smaller than they really are.”

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