Sunday, June 30, 2013

On definitions

Writers need to use definitions in their work. Today's texts move across international boundaries like never before. It is just too risky for writers to assume that all their words will be understood in the same way across the world.

For instance, I came across a theme-issue by the Economist last week, which focused on Iran. Three articles were in the June 22-28, 2013 issue:
Among these articles, there are many many terms that are deserving of definition. They are deserving of definition because their use across so many writers and so many "brands" has add too many variations to the standard definition. This calls for a discussion on the various definitions in an effort to sensitize the reader on how terms should be understood in respective articles.

Here are a few examples of terms that I think are deserving of definition in the respective articles listed above:

1. Persian power: Can Iran be stopped?
  • Ayatollah
  • Inflation
  • Sanctions
  • Theocracy
  • Democracy
  • Nuclear capacity
  • Nuclear programme
  • Uranium
  • Centrifuge
  • Enrichment capability
  • Fissile material
  • Implosion device
  • "Client" (of Iran's)
  • Nuclear negotiations
  • Draconian

2. Iran's nuclear programme: Breakout beckons?
  • Military threats
  • Divert
  • P5+1
  • Comprehensive inspections
  • Enrichment
  • Reactor
  • Medical isotopes
  • IR-1
  • Hexafluoride
  • Engineering capacity
  • Unilateral strike
  • Alliance building
  • Diplomatic ultimatums

3. Iran's new president: Will he make a difference?#
  • Revolutionary guard
  • Platform of engagement
  • Reformist
  • Islamic system
  • Middle ground
  • Boost (the ruling establishment)
  • Bellicose posturing
  • Party-cum-militia
  • Terrorist outfit
  • Fissiparous (rebel groups)

Sure, some of these words are self explanatory. Sure, others can be defined by reading the sentances they are placed in. And sure, I could look some up in a dictionary. 

But my point here is to call on writers to define their terms as they meant it. Words tend to come loaded with bias. It is this bias all writing needs to make clear to its reader.

I understand this is a semantic issue that, if resolved in-text, could risk losing the attention of the reader. But there are other ways to do this, instead of using in-text definitions. A glossary, for example, would be a nice end-note reference that readers could refer to when they came across a suspiciously-common word or term.