What's the correct way to say something such as "my definition of good C# code is etc.".

I could say "I would describe good C# code as having the following attributes and adhering to the following rules: etc.", but that seems rather long winded.

Similarly, I often hear the expression: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I looked up the definition of insanity, and that's not it. If we're speaking English, the definition of a word should be its corresponding text in the dictionary. Is there something else to call those expressions like the above examples, other than personal or informal definitions?

  • Your second example is actually a quotation from Einstein; there's no reason why his definition should be worse than Webster's. Jul 26 '12 at 22:39
  • @TimLymington source? I can't find where he claimed that as the definition of insanity, only quotes starting with "Insanity is doing..."
    – MStodd
    Jul 26 '12 at 22:45
  • Last paragraph strikes me as peeving in disguise as a question.
    – MetaEd
    Jul 26 '12 at 23:01
  • @MetaEd At the least the last sentence is an actual question. I added the first sentence as an example with which I am familiar.
    – MStodd
    Jul 26 '12 at 23:06
  • You might be talking about humorous quips.
    – walrii
    Jul 27 '12 at 8:55

In a general context, the word definition does not necessarily imply a dictionary definition. So, your use of "my definition of good C# code is ..." is perfectly fine. If you want to stress that it's your personal viewpoint, you would employ the word opinion as follows:

In my [personal|considered] opinion, good C# code is defined by ...

For an informal definition, you could use:

A loose definition of ...

Or, if you are simplifying a definition in the interest of your audience:

A layman's definition of ...


First, you say "If we're speaking English, the definition of a word should be its corresponding text in the dictionary." but that's not really true.

There is no 'official' English dictionary since there's no 'official' definition of the English language. The English language is defined by the community that speak it and evolves over time. Dictionary-makers are just well-meaning people with expertise in lexicography who do their best to give us useful tools that reflect usage. Dictionaries are helpful, and the respectable ones carry a lot of authority - but that authority is due to the painstaking research and work that went into them, not just the virtue of being called a 'dictionary'.

Each of us is free to make our own definitions that fit the context we're dealing with. "Definitions" are just explanations of a word's meaning using some paraphrase. What really matters is communication and being understood.

That all said - if you say "the definition of good C++ code", the use of the definite article means you are referring to a particular definition. It may be Webster's or Stroustrup's. If you say "my definition of good C++ code", then it's clear that you are referring to a personal definition which may not be found in a published book.

  • @Mehper When I quoted the original, it had "it's". I see it's been fixed now... :) Jul 26 '12 at 20:18
  • No worries.. :) Jul 26 '12 at 21:36
  • Not only are we free to make our own definitions, we're also free to use words without attaching any definitions to them at all, and that's what we do in the vast majority of cases. I think we usually effectively decide whether a word is appropriate based analogies with how it was used in the past, not by using any definition.
    – bdsl
    Jun 26 '13 at 23:55

How about operational definition? The term is defined in terms of how it is being used/ or described in your report/presentation/paper.


You might say "My standard for good C++ code..."

Standards vary according to the situation and the requirements. Having said that, they should be consistent under similar conditions (or they wouldn't be standards). In your case, you may have good reasons to define your own standard.

  • I personally prefer to avoid such senses of standard in technical contexts, because discussions about what is and isn't standard in the specific sense of adhering to a particular specification published by a standards body, are so common that other senses of the word can confuse things.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 25 '13 at 19:09
  • Yes, I've noticed time and again how technical-minded people (being one myself) do get hung up (boxed in) with words. I would have offered "policy" as an alternative. Policies seem to be more local, standards (even my standards) tend to be given a global interpretation. Jan 25 '13 at 19:14
  • It's not even so much a matter of hung up, as that one can end up with statements where its not clear which sense is meant, but the distinction makes for a completely different meaning.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 25 '13 at 19:15

The word you are looking for is "aphorism" derived from the Greek word meaning "definition". The modern cultural artifact we call a "dictionary" is based on one interpretation of how to define a word's meaning. The current approach is based primarily on a philosophy of use - that a word means whatever its users use it to mean. This leaves out much useful information, which could be based on the kind of tacit knowledge Polanyi called "personal knowledge" (Michal Polanyi, "Personal knowledge") A definition attempts to clarify a field of meaning. The questioner should be free to share his tacit and explicit knowledge of programming. The degree to which people will accept it as a definition may depend on the degree to which it identifies and clarifies the important features.

  • Hi, Robert. Welcome to the stack. This is a good answer, but it could be improved by linking to supporting documentation. Please take the tour and enjoy contributing. :)
    – Davo
    May 5 '21 at 18:55
  • 1
    That's not the default definition of 'aphorism' and not one I've found in several dictionaries. If redefining terms, one needs to make it clear that one is departing from standard usage. ELU deals with standard usages; stating baldly 'You want X' can be worse than unhelpful. May 5 '21 at 18:56

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