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Definition by Negation

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Definition by Negation

Have you ever struggled to define something in terms of what it is, but can more easily define what it is not? Defining something by what it is not is the meaning of a definition by negation. It is similar to citing examples, in that referencing something else provides context. Definition by negation is a useful tool to employ in essays and arguments.

Strategies of Definition

There are three ways to define something: function strategy, example strategy, and negation strategy.

Definition by function is describing something in terms of its nature.

This is like in a dictionary. For instance, "Red is visible light at a wavelength near 700 nanometers" defines red using the function strategy of definition.

Definition by example is when a writer provides instances of what something is.

For instance, "Fire engines are red" is to define red using the example strategy of definition.

The final kind of definition is the definition by negation.

Definition by Negation – Meaning

Although it sounds complex like some kind of mathematical deduction, definition by negation is not so hard to understand.

A definition by negation is when a writer provides instances of what something is not.

Here is a simple example of what that looks like:

When we talk about retro gaming, we aren’t talking about anything after the year 2000, and we aren’t talking about board or table-top games.

Here is what the topic of discussion is not:

  1. The topic is not video games after the year 2000.

  2. The topic is not board games.

  3. The topic is not tabletop games.

Although not explicitly stated, it is implied the topic is video games before the year 2000. Here is a more complete definition that uses both definition by negation and definition by example.

When we talk about retro gaming, we aren’t talking about anything after the year 2000, and we aren’t talking about board or table-top games. We’re talking about video games: the first games made on radar equipment in the mid-20th century, right up to Ages of Empires II and Pepsiman.

Using two strategies of definition, such as definition by negation and definition by example, is a strong way to define something.

Definition by negation is a strategy of defining something. It can even be used to define a single word.

Definition by Negation – Rules

To write a definition by negation, you have only a few rules to follow and plenty of room to improvise.

First, apply the definition by negation to either a term or a talking point. In the retro gaming example, the term "retro gaming" is defined by negation. However, you could also apply this rhetorical strategy to a talking point such as, “employment in the US.”

Second, a definition by negation does not need to include everything that something is not. The retro gaming example made the era obvious, but it did not specify what is considered to be a “game.” It said that it did not include board games or tabletop games, but what about word games, puzzle games, and card games? Do flash games count as video games?

Definition by Negation, Card example, StudySmarterYou don't have to define all things by negation. Flaticon.

This is why, although it is not necessary, it is best to follow a definition by negation with a definition by function. This way, lingering questions can be answered. Again referring to the retro gaming example, by following the definition of negation with “we’re talking about video games,” the writer makes it clear what they are talking about.

Difference Between Definition by Negation and Definition by Examples

Definition by negation is the opposite of definition by examples. To give an example of something, you give an instance of what that something is.

Marine life can be many things. For example, it can be fish, coral, or even microorganisms found in the water.

Notice that these examples do not include what marine life isn’t. Therefore, it does not include a definition by negation.

You can also phrase a definition by examples using negation:

Marine life does not include many things, however. For example, it does not include beach-combing mammals.

Definition by Negation – Examples

This is how definition by negation might appear in an essay:

This discussion of druidism, or druidry, does not concern the modern spiritual revival. Nor does it concern any modern religion, related to nature or otherwise. This discussion will not broach so far as the Late Middle Ages. Rather, this discussion of druidism will be limited to the ancient and old Celtic druids from antiquity through the High Middle Ages."

This essayist uses a definition by negation to make the scope of their argument clear. Their discussion of druidism will not explore the relationship between ancient and modern druidism, nor will it reach as far as discussing the High Middle Ages.

In an essay, definition by negation is a great tool to cleave a topic down the middle: to make it very clear what you are talking about and not talking about.

Definition by Negation, Druid example, StudySmarterDefining what a druid is by negation. Flaticon.

Definition by Negation – Essay

After all of these examples, you might have a question on your mind: What is the purpose of “definition by negation”? Why not simply start out with what something is, instead of wasting time on what it is not?

As a writer, you certainly don’t have to define something by negation. It would be cumbersome if you always did. Definition by negation is merely a rhetorical strategy with some unique upsides. Here are some of its strong suits:

  1. A definition by negation addresses the counterpoint. Taking the retro gaming example, somebody might argue that retro games should include games from year 2000-onward in some capacity. By explicitly saying that these games don’t count, the writer makes it clear that they did not simply “leave out” these games without forethought. They did so purposefully, which readies both sides for an argument.

  2. A definition by negation adds clarity. By using the definition by negation strategy, a writer lessens the chance of an unclear definition and narrows down the ideas.

  3. A definition by negation prepares the reader for the topic. A reader might have preconceptions about the topic when they start to read. By addressing these misconceptions, a writer can set up the reader for the actual discussion. For example, if you are writing an essay about The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, you might want to say you won’t be exploring any conspiracy theories.

You should not use definition by negation to substitute for examples or evidence in your body paragraphs. Rather, you should use the definition by negation strategy to group things logically for your reader and to help them understand your argument better.

Do not use definition by negation to fill space. Be careful your definition by negation is not repetitive. Only use a definition by negation if you truly feel it adds clarity.

Definition by Negation - Key takeaways

  • A definition by negation is when a writer provides instances of what something is not. It is just one strategy to define something. You can also define something in terms of its function or by use of example.
  • Apply the definition by negation to either a term or a talking point.
  • A definition by negation does not need to include everything that something is not.
  • A definition by negation addresses the counterpoint.
  • A definition by negation adds clarity and prepares the reader for the topic.

Frequently Asked Questions about Definition by Negation

definition by negation is when a writer defines what something is not.

An example of definition by negation is: When we talk about retro gaming, we aren’t talking about anything after the year 2000, and we aren’t talking about board or table-top games.

A definition by negation is when a writer defines what something is not. In this case, what a word's meaning is not.

Yes.

You can define something in terms of its function, by using examples, and by negation.

Final Definition by Negation Quiz

Question

What is a definition by negation?

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Answer

A definition by negation is when a writer provides an instance of what something is not.

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Question

Is the following an example of a definition by negation?

"We’re talking about video games: the first games made on radar equipment in the mid-20th century, right up to Ages of Empires II and Pepsiman."

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Answer

No. Nothing is negated. This is definition by example.

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Question

What can a definition of negation apply to?

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Answer

Term or talking point

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Question

Could you define "the housing crisis" by negation?

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Answer

Yes, as this is a talking point.

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Question

A definition by negation _____ need to include everything that something is not. 


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Answer

Does not

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Question

What best follows a definition by negation?

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Answer

The actual definition.

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Question

What is helpful about pairing a definition by negation and an actual definition? 

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Answer

By supporting a definition by negation with an actual definition, a writer lessens the chance of an unclear definition.

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Question

What does it mean to give an example of something?

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Answer

To give an example of something, you give an instance of what that something is. 

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Question

"A definition by negation is a kind of definition by examples."

True or false?

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Answer

False. A definition by examples is a different strategy than a definition by negation.

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Question

In an essay, definition by negation is a great tool to cleave a topic down the middle: to make what very clear?


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Answer

To make it very clear what you are talking about and not talking about.

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Question

"You should use the definition of negation in most places that it is possible."

True or false?

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Answer

False. Use it sparingly!

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Question

A definition by negation addresses the _____.

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Answer

Counterpoint

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Question

How does a definition by negation clear up preconceptions?

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Answer

For example, if you are writing an essay about The Last Supper, you might want to get out of the way that you won’t be exploring any conspiracy theories. This sets up the reader for the actual topic.

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Question

You _____ use definition by negation to substitute for examples or evidence in your body paragraphs

Show answer

Answer

Should not

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Question

Because it can say the same thing as a _____, be careful your definition by negation is not repetitive.


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Answer

Definition

Show question

Question

This isn't your average grocery store. It's not a big, cold warehouse full of wilting vegetables, and it's also not a tiny convenience store with a small inventory.


Is this a definition by negation, function, or example?

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Answer

Negation

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Question

This is a unique kind of grocery store. It's a spacious, interactive environment full of fresh produce, a large selection of items, and cutting-edge technology to guide you through the store.


Is this a definition by negation, function, or example?

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Answer

Example

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Question

This grocery store is run entirely by robots that bring you your products. The whole grocery shopping experience, from retrieving your items to checking out to getting your groceries to your car, is automated.


Is this a definition by negation, function, or example?

Show answer

Answer

Function

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Question

What is this place, then? You already said it's not a grocery store, but it's also not a warehouse or a convenience store or a computer store?


Is this a definition by negation, function, or example?

Show answer

Answer

Negation

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Question

We already told you, it's a brand new experience. It's a store that provides everything from groceries to home goods with the help of computers!


Is this a definition by negation, function, or example?

Show answer

Answer

Function

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