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.

Definition by Negation Definition by Negation

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Contents
Table of contents

    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, StudySmarterFig. 1 - You don't have to define all things by negation.

    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, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Defining what a druid is by negation.

    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

    What is definition by negation?

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

    What are definition by negation examples?

    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.

    What does it mean to define a word by negation?

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

    Is negation a strategy of definition?

    Yes.

    What are the different ways to define something?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What can a definition of negation apply to?

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

    A definition by negation addresses the _____.

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