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MyNewtBoobs's avatar

How would you explain the difference between the terms "define" and "describe"?

Asked by MyNewtBoobs (18970 points ) September 26th, 2010

How would you explain the difference between “define” and “describe” to someone?

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15 Answers

janbb's avatar

“Define” is to tell what something means.
“Describe” is to tell about its appearance or characteristics.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@janbb Can a description be a definition?

nikipedia's avatar

Interesting question! I would say….

To define something is to establish its essential characteristics, things that necessarily belong to all things that share that name: e.g., a chair is a piece of furniture used for sitting, often with four legs.

To describe something gives characteristics of that single, particular item: e.g., the chair I’m sitting in now is a black office chair with rolly wheels and a mesh back.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@nikipedia So then your opinion of it (ie if it’s good or bad) is not part of a definition?

janbb's avatar

@papayalily I would say that @nikipedia ‘s definition of a chair is also a description of what all chairs have in common.

What is the context for your question?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@janbb Things I Wonder At 3 In The Morning…

talljasperman's avatar

define narrows describe widens

janbb's avatar

@papayalily Aha! Thought it might be for English and that you wre still puzzling over that teacher.

I would say for the “Things I Wonder at 3 in the Morning” type answer, there is definitely some overlap between the two words. A description make be encompassed in a definition and a definition be part of a description.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@janbb I am still puzzling over her (there was An Incident on Friday) but it’s a totally separate question. I think. Technically I can’t remember how I came up with it, so maybe..?.

flo's avatar

Definition is what something is, and description is what it looks like smells like feels like etc.,. For example, in the yellow pages before anything else, I need to know what heading I should look under, right?
This is a really useful question by the way since people have a tendency to describe things (which is helpful too) instead of starting by saying what it is. In order to do a search, knowing what something is is more helpful than the description

Austinlad's avatar

I think of a definition as what something is… and a description as what I perceive and feel it to be. Facts vs. feelings.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Austinlad Wow, that’s a truly beautiful answer. I’m in love with that right now.

Austinlad's avatar

Thank you, @papayalily. I do love words.

Jeruba's avatar

To define is to place something in the class in which it belongs and then distinguish it from other members of the class. To describe is to name traits or qualities. Traits or qualities might (or might not) be part of a definition and might even be necessary, but they would not be sufficient.

I would add that a definition is in some sense substitutable for the thing defined. Even if in practice you would not say “I’d like to buy a piece of furniture used for sitting, often with four legs” or “Put that four-legged piece of furniture used for sitting over there,” you could, and it would be intelligible. You can’t do that with “black with a mesh back and rolly wheels.”

These principles apply mostly to nouns. You can’t really describe things other than nouns because only nouns have qualities. We typically define verbs by using synonyms and qualifiers (to walk is to move the body using the legs); adjectives by synonyms and nouns (funny is amusing or causing laughter), adverbs with a prepositional phrase such as “in a —- manner or way,” and prepositions, conjunctions, and other odd little bits with strangely convoluted explanations. I imagine there are few indeed who would seriously attempt to define a word such as “to” or “than.”

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