We have one rule for dealing with definitions: use them rarely.
Definitions often cause more problems than they solve. Uniformly, writing experts advise keeping definitions to a minimum (Dickerson 1986, Garner 2001, Kimble 2006). If you can’t avoid them, use as few as possible. It’s better to take the time to rewrite to avoid needing to define a bunch of terms. If you must use definitions, follow the guidelines below.
Don’t define common words
Never define a word to mean something other than its commonly accepted meaning.
Reed Dickerson, in his landmark book, Fundamentals of Legal Drafting, has this advice for legal drafters:
“It is important for the legal draftsman not to define a word in a sense significantly different from the way it is normally understood by the persons to whom it is primarily addressed. This is a fundamental principle of communication, and it is one of the shames of the legal profession that draftsmen so flagrantly violate it. Indeed, the principle is one of the most important in the whole field of legal drafting.”
Mr. Dickerson’s advice applies to any government communication, not just to legal documents.
Morris Cohen, in Reason and Law, explains:
“Whenever we define a word…in a manner that departs from current customary usage, we sooner or later unwittingly fall back on the common use and thus confuse the meanings of our terms.”
Furthermore, readers are likely to forget that you’d assigned some common word a new meaning, and when they come upon the word later in your document they assign the common meaning, rather than your specialized one.
Here are some unnecessary definitions:
Bicycle means every device propelled solely by human power upon which a person or persons may ride on land, having one, two, or more wheels, except a manual wheelchair.
Degrade means to lessen or diminish in quantity, quality, or value.
Age means how old a person is, or the number of elapsed years from the date of a person’s birth.
And here are some examples of definitions that conflict with customary usage – you should avoid these at all costs.
Pages means paper copies of standard office size or the dollar value equivalent in other media
Ten pages into the document, how do you think the average reader would respond if asked to define “page”?
Coal deposits mean all Federally owned coal deposits, except those held in trust for a Native American tribe.
So if coal is held in trust for a Native American tribe, it isn’t coal?
Dead livestock. The body (cadaver) of livestock which has died otherwise than by slaughter.
So if you slaughter it, it isn’t really dead?
When possible, define a word where you use it
Avoid long sections of definitions at the beginning or end of your document. Rewrite to try to eliminate the need for most definitions.
If you must have a definition section, put it at the beginning or end
Place definitions at the end, in spite of tradition. In placing definitions at the end, you allow your user to go right to the text, rather than having to go through less important material.
Don’t number the definitions, but list them alphabetically. This makes it easier for users to find a definition, and usually makes it easier for you to change your definition section later.
Never include regulatory or substantive material in definitions
Not only is this common sense – your user doesn’t expect substantive material in the definitions section – but for regulations it’s a requirement of the Office of the Federal Register.
Consider this “definition” in Title 43 Part 3480-Coal Exploration and Mining Operations:
Maximum economic recovery (MER) means that, based on standard industry operating practices, all profitable portions of a leased Federal coal deposit must be mined. At the times of MER determinations, consideration will be given to: existing proven technology; commercially available and economically feasible equipment; coal quality, quantity, and marketability; safety, exploration, operating, processing, and transportation costs; and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The requirement of MER does not restrict the authority of the authorized officer to ensure the conservation of the recoverable coal reserves and other resources and to prevent the wasting of coal.
Hiding in this long passage is the definition, “Maximum economic recovery (MER) means the mining of all profitable portions of a leased Federal coal deposit, based on standard industry operating practices.” All the rest of the material belongs in the substantive parts of the regulation.
Don’t define words you don’t use
Again, this seems obvious. But writers seem to automatically define terms they think they might use, but don’t. This can be very confusing for users who expect to read something about the topic but can’t find it in the document.
- Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, § 8.15.
- Cohen, Morris, Reason and Law, 1950, The Free Press, Glencoe, IL, p.77.
- Dickerson, Reed, Fundamentals of Legal Drafting, 1986, 2nd edition, Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, pp. 137, 144.
- Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and Rowe, New York, pp. 58-69, 79.
- Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, p. 257-258.
- Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 97-99.
- Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, Carolina Academic Press, 2006, Durham, NC.