Does a definition need to provide a unique or near-unique description or can non-unique descriptions also be categorized as definitions?

For example:

Is the statement "An apple is a fruit" a definition of apple?

Is the statement "A car is something that gets people from place to place" a definition of car?

Are these simply descriptions (or categorizations) of the objects in question or are they also poor definitions?

  • 3
    What happens when you consult a dictionary?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 1:46
  • 1
    Your question does not seem to be about English language, maybe it is about Linguistics? Or Logic? Clearly, if in your specific context apples are the only fruit available, "an apple is a fruit" is a satisfactory definition; the moment you introduce a second fruit you are in trouble. Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 1:57
  • 1
    A weak, vague, useless, or wrong definition is still a definition. Not entirely unlike a rotten apple is still an apple, and a car low on gas, with two flat tires, and no engine is still a car. "An apple is a fruit" is a definition. "A car is an apple" is a definition.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 2:10
  • 2
    "Unique:" that defines a definition. Everything else is a description.
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 5:00
  • 1
    Check Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on definitions. [plato.stanford.edu/entries/definitions/]. There are many types of definitions and there is also a "Theory of definition".
    – Wishwas
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 16:26

3 Answers 3


A definition asserts the meaning of a word. Preferably, it asserts a meaning clearly enough that you can distinguish when that word would and would not apply.

"An apple is a fruit" could be called a very poor definition if you wanted to stretch the term.

"An apple is the round fruit of a tree belonging to the rose family" is better but doesn't reliably distinguish between apples and pears.

"Apple (noun): (1) the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, Malus domestica, of the rose family. (2) the apple tree" has enough detail to be useful.

  • Why is the first a "poor" definition? What is the definition of "poor" and what do you mean by "definition" in that statement?
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 5:01
  • How are the second and third progressively "richer" definitions?
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 5:01
  • 1
    @Kris - are you being deliberately obtuse? Read the second sentence of the first paragraph.
    – bye
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 7:29
  • 1
    It' the difference between description and definition. A good definition uniquely defines or provides an equivalence to both sides of the colon. A description is merely categorization.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 13:53

One analysis of different types of definition given for lexemes / polysemes by lexicographers is presented by Howard Jackson in Lexicography: An Introduction.

One principle put forward is that 'different forms of definition are appropriate to different types of word [eg aardvark; to] [Zgusta, 1971].

Another is that 'apt wording' should be found to construct a 'telling definition'.

An example of a 'good' definition given is the one from NODE:

'a solid-hoofed plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding, racing, and to carry and pull loads'

You can work out the word being defined.

But with 'a fruit'?


Definition \Def`i*ni"tion, n. [L. definitio: cf. F. d['e]finition.]

  1. The act of defining; determination of the limits; as, a telescope accurate in definition.

  2. Act of ascertaining and explaining the signification; a description of a thing by its properties; an explanation of the meaning of a word or term; as, the definition of "circle;" the definition of "wit;" an exact definition; a loose definition.

  3. Description; sort. [R.] "A new creature of another

  4. (Logic) An exact enunciation of the constituents which make up the logical essence.

  5. (Opt.) Distinctness or clearness, as of an image formed by an optical instrument; precision in detail.

source : Definition of definition wordigg

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