I've seen in math and physics lectures delivered in English, that people use to abreviate the commonly very used word "Definition" by "Def n"(Def superscript n). What's the meaning of this n? That is, which sequence of letters of phonemes does this n stand for? And, which other words can be abbreviated in the same way? (I've seen more, I just forgot which)


3 Answers 3


The n itself does not stand for a sound. The entire abbreviation “Defⁿ” stands for the sound of the word definition.

Could it be you are thinking of “Defⁿ” as a contraction? A contraction is a word in its own right. For example, isn’t is a word, originally coined by contraction of the words is not.

Abbreviations are not contractions. They are still read as the original word. For example, you might abbreviate singular as “sing.” but you would still pronounce it singular.

There really are no general rules for how to abbreviate or how to write an abbreviation, but some words are almost always abbreviated the same way and it is convenient for the reader if you adopt the common abbreviation. For example it is common in academic works to abbreviate pages as “pp.” But that is not a matter of English spelling or grammar, just written style.

  • As it happens, I'd like to save space in a blackboard: so I would tend to contract words that frequently appear, as expansion as exp^n, etc. I just wanted to understand a pattern, in order to do it correctly. So, as far as I understand, there is no pattern, right?
    – c.p.
    Nov 7, 2012 at 22:16
  • People often think using analogy, so once you have abbreviated one word as xxx^n and explained it, you'll be able to use yyy^n with little or no explanation.
    – MetaEd
    Nov 7, 2012 at 22:39

Assuming you mean "defn" rather that the literal "def^n", then it's not an exponent it's just an abbreviation using a superscript.
Wikipedia's entry on superscript:

Many abbreviations use superscripts, especially historically. […] In handwritten shorthand, many abbreviations are still written this way, such as defn […].

If it's the literal "def^n" then I would think it's a humorous use of "^" alluding to its use indicating a superscript.

  • Yes, by exponent I meant superscript (which I didn't know how to type other than with LaTeX). I know what you wrote: but I don't know the rules for abbreviating with this <sup>n</sup>. That's the question.
    – c.p.
    Nov 7, 2012 at 18:53
  • 2
    The rules are defunct, having been used for handwriting and handset typefaces for several centuries, gradually becoming archaic and even droll, like using Yʳ Obᵗ Svᵗ as a complimentary close in personal letters. Nov 7, 2012 at 20:25

In similar situations, I've seen "defn" ('plain'/abbreviation) or "def'n" (with apostrophe / contraction) very frequently. They are usually pronounced as the full word ("definition"), although occasionally 'contracted'.

I would guess that the superscript version is in (possibly humorous) reference to this. I would not assume it is a standard that will necessarily be understood (especially if you'll be teaching 'across a language barrier'). I would be even more careful about "exp^n" for "explain" / advise against it (I've never seen that one, and would think you meant exponentiation). Although, if you have a whole semester, your students will get used to your style (as a previous answer said).

"Def" or "Def." would also be fine, I think.

  • Moreover, "Sol^n" for "solution" is often seen in lectures or in typed notes. I'm sure there are many others besides.
    – Flint72
    May 30, 2014 at 15:07

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