Definitions that aren’t

This is yet another item that can be listed under tech writing frustrations.

I was working on a project where we needed to rewrite a set of glossary definitions.  I won’t go into the definitions (primarily due to corporate privacy), but for illustration purposes, let me use this analogy.

Let’s say you’re looking up a definition for, say, a car.  You come across the following glossary listing: “A car has four wheels.  It is made of metal.  It is not a boat.”

This tells you about some of a car’s attributes (four wheels, made of metal) and what it isn’t (a boat).  It never tells you, in any way, shape, or form, what a car actually is!

Yet this horrifically-written glossary is entirely made up of “definitions” (and I use the word loosely) written just like this.  I don’t know about you, but my assessment of these glossary definitions would be “totally useless.”

I come across “definitions” like this more often than I want to say, and they make me cringe.  People look up word meanings to find out what words mean.  Writing a “definition” that describes only its attributes is useless.  If a glossary “definition” does not “define” what it is, then it does not do its job.