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Although a definition can take the form of a positive claim, often employing language such as "of or relating to", or a negative claim, employing similar language as "not of, relating to", it never seems the case that an entry utilises a combination of positive and negative claims. Inspired by jsw29's comment to this question here, where they state the following:

Lurking behind this question is another one: why don't dictionaries do that (more often), when it would be so useful if they did? That may technically be outside the scope of this site, but it is a very interesting question.

In hopes this question would be in "the scope of this site", why do "definers" never employ positive and negative claims together when defining a word? Is there a particular philosophy that said "definers" adhere to when constructing definitions that discourages this?

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    How could a dictionary list all of the ways that a word should not be used?
    – nnnnnn
    Nov 22, 2020 at 10:57
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    Sometimes this is done: Hot (adj.) miore than warm; as opposed to cold. Or "Bald (adj.) - without or lacking hair. Not hairy"" But such definitions as "dog (n.)" - that which is not a cat. is particularly unhelpful.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 22, 2020 at 12:04
  • @nnnnnn A similar comment/question was made on my original question; It can't, but I think that a Dictionary could conceivably make negative claims in relation to specific contexts just to further clarify where a word is not semantically appropriate/legitimate. What in my question implies that a Dictionary has to list ALL ways a word should not be used, in order to define a word?
    – TomDot Com
    Nov 22, 2020 at 12:17
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    I’m voting to close this question because it asks about lexicographic choices rather than the English language per se. I can't see it being appropriate on ELU.Meta, either. Direct communication with lexicographers is needed. And note that some dictionaries do have extensive usage notes and example sentences to help with distribution of particular words. But English is so idiosyncratic that each word would need many 'incorrect examples' if one is to approach an exhaustive treatment. Nov 22, 2020 at 16:45
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    As I understand the question, it is not why dictionaries don't list everything that the word does not stand for (that would, of course, be absurd), but why they don't list some specific things that the word is not used for, but that one might be tempted to use it for, on the basis of the positive part of the definition. For example, why don't they say that shoe is not normally used for swimming flippers, and that food is not normally used for drugs that are taken orally?
    – jsw29
    Nov 22, 2020 at 17:53

1 Answer 1

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In Do dictionaries make negative claims?, Mitch commented,

"I think what you're getting at is not any sort of negative in a definition but rather an exclusionary part of the definition. That is, using a more general definition and excluding portions of the general set. eg, "mitigate means to make things better than they were but not necessarily good". Is that what you're wondering if it is actually used in a dictionary?"

to which you reply

Yes, that's probably a better phrasing of what I wanted to ask.

The problem is that such qualifications are potentially endless.

The phrase, "mitigate means to make things better than they were but not necessarily good"

could be 'improved' to become

"mitigate means to make things better than they were but not necessarily perfect or even good"


The drawback of all English dictionaries is that you need to understand English in order to read them. Therefore the dictionary makers have to assume a basic level of understanding.

A reader is expected to know already that "better" does not mean "perfect" or "good". In this case what the extra information has done is to include a partial definition of another word (better) in the definition of the word "mitigate".

If we have to explain all the words in a definition within the definition itself, we have a hopeless situation. It may not be infinite but the size of such a dictionary would be beyond all reason.

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  • "The problem is that such qualifications are potentially endless." - I don't really see how this is a problem. Need Dictionary Constructors feel compelled to qualify infinitely? As you showed in the following example, in the definition of mitigate: "to make things better than they were but not necessarily good", the "definer" had already constructed the definition such that there was an arbitrary amount of negative qualifications, in this example only one: "not necessarily good".
    – TomDot Com
    Nov 22, 2020 at 13:44
  • The task of explaining all the words in a definition within the definition itself, is easy with online dictionaries, and some do provide a link to many of the terms used, as do encyclopedias like Wikipedia with cross-references and hover pop-ups. Nov 22, 2020 at 13:49
  • - Of course the "definer" may feel that the definition would be improved by altering it to "not necessarily perfect or even good" and increase the negative claim count to two. They could theoretically keep going; or, they could stop right there. It's all arbitrary. They could arbitrarily determine that two negative claims is satisfactory for, as you put it, a reader of some "basic level of understanding" and problem solved.
    – TomDot Com
    Nov 22, 2020 at 13:51
  • Also "The problem is that such qualifications are potentially endless." I could say the same about Dictionaries making positive claims. I could locally define the word "awkward" with an indefinite amount of my own constructed senses, employ the word with those senses in mind, and a dictionary never list said senses nor recognise their legitimacy as senses of the word "awkward" itself. Although a Dictionary lists "conventional" definitions of "awkward", none of "my" senses are listed and thus a potentially infinite amount of positive claim definitions could, but are not, listed in a Dictionary.
    – TomDot Com
    Nov 22, 2020 at 14:08

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