How to Write a Dictionary Definition

Whether you're compiling a glossary, writing a dictionary, or simply trying to sound official to play a dictionary bluffing game or to define your own made-up words, here are a few ideas to make your definitions as helpful and as powerful as they should be.

These steps are appropriate for a descriptive definition of how a term is actually used. Note that this is a more demanding process than writing a prescriptive definition, such as one defining how an author will use a term in a document.


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    Find examples of the word in use. Google (and especially Google Books) are excellent resources for finding citations. Citations provide evidence that the word is in use and show how it is used.
  2. Image titled Write a Dictionary Definition Step 2
    Examine how the word functions in the examples that you find.
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    Determine the part of speech of the word, for the sense or senses you wish to define. This will help you write the right definition. Recall these basics:
    • Noun: A person, place, or thing: Utah, minivan, moon, grocer, January. Nouns can also be ideas, such as "confidence" or "hesitation".
    • Pronoun: A word that takes the place of a noun. He, she, it, they.
    • Verb: An action word. Go, jump, harangue, grill, gaze, ponder, hurry.
    • Adjective: A word that describes, or modifies, a noun. A red hat, a slow train, a precarious ledge.
    • Adverb: A word that modifies a verb or an adjective. He landed painfully and rose slowly. The train was ridiculously slow.
    • Conjunction: A word that joins two independent clauses. In English, these include and, or, for, nor, but, yet, and so.
    • Preposition: This describes the location of something. On, above, under, to, into, at, during, inside.
    • Interjection: An exclamation, often with no grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence. For example: Wow, hey, yikes, abracadabra, ouch, hmm, oh boy!
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    Make further distinctions within the parts of speech. If you wish to be thorough about the grammatical function of this word, further determine whether a noun is countable or uncountable, whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, and so on.
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    Choose a specific sense of the word and think about the word's meaning in that sense. One good way to go about this is to consider how you would explain this word to a small child or a person who is just beginning to speak the language. Avoid using descriptive words that are more complicated than the word in question, unless you also explain their meaning.
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    Explore the word. What other words seem similar? What words are close? What is the difference between this word and other related words? What distinguishes "fragile" from "weak" from "flimsy"?
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    Think of synonyms (words that mean the same) and antonyms (words that mean the opposite) for the word. Some of these can go into the definition, if they are appropriate.
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    Describe the word. While it's perfectly all right to include synonyms in the definition, a definition composed entirely of synonyms may not be as helpful as it could be. Thus, try to be as descriptive as possible.
    • If the word has a range of meanings, you'll need to address each one separately.
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    Use words in the definition that will be familiar to a reader who does not already know the word being defined. Compare:
    • moxie - Gumption; pluck; chutzpah.
    • moxie - Bold determination; strength or fortitude.
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    Write the definition in the typical style of a dictionary. Phrases such as "This word is used to..." or "Describes a situation in which..." may help to get you started, but edit them out of your final definition.
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    Write the definition so that it matches the part of speech. Verb definitions will contain many verbs; noun definitions, many nouns.
    • Most verb definitions will begin with the word "to". For instance, a definition for the verb "pause" might read, "To stop briefly or temporarily; to interrupt a process or activity and later resume it."
    • Noun definitions may begin with the words "a", "an" or "the".
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    Read your definition and make sure that it agrees with the word and the sense you are trying to define.
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    Have somebody else read your definition and tell you if it makes sense.


  • Read some entries in a dictionary or glossary and take note of the style in which definitions are written.
  • Have a look at the etymology of the word, too. Do you know what a kibosh (as in "put the kibosh on") was? What did it originally mean if something fizzled? Sometimes, the etymology can add some perspective to a word's meaning.
  • Notice how you learn most words: from context. This is why it's important to seek out examples of the context of a word before attempting to define it.
  • Consult other dictionaries to see what they have to say about your word. Synthesizing a selection of other definitions can help you write your own, or help you learn to write your own definitions independently.
  • If you're interested in the fascinating history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), check out Simon Winchester's lecture.
  • If you're just starting out writing definitions, begin with words that have specific meanings, especially nouns. Compare the number of meanings in a dictionary for specific words, such as "keepsake" or "prattle" to the number of meanings for widely-used words such as "down" or "set", and you'll see why. Practice first on words with only a few, specific meanings.
  • Parts of speech can be tricky for some words, and especially for phrases. If you're not sure what sort of word you have, look it up in a dictionary. For really hard problems, consult a reference grammar. One covers about 3,000 individual English words.


  • If you include an etymology in your dictionary, make sure it is well-researched. Some words and phrases tend to have many "folk etymologies" circulating about them. These are groundless theories, basically guesses about word origins that get passed around without any sort of verification. Do your own research and evaluate carefully whether you can trust a given source.
  • The parts of speech listed in this article are the basic parts of speech for English. Other languages have other parts of speech, and some people distinguish additional parts of speech in English.
  • Avoid circular definitions, especially if you are defining multiple words. There is a tendency, when defining words, to circle back to the word or root with which one began. While it may be legitimate to define an adverb in terms of the adjective from which it has grown (for example, ridiculously - in a ridiculous manner), this sort of definition supposes that the word ridiculous is defined somewhere. Generally, avoid using variations of the word being defined in the definition.
  • Avoid describing the word by what it is not - focus on describing what it is.

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