Concept Definitions and Semantics

LOGO FINALQuality IS… an abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experiences?

If the meaning of concepts is understood, the meaning of quality will follow.


Robert Harris, retired Professor of English at Vanguard University, addresses some of the pitfalls of the reliance on definitions to communicate the meaning of a concept in his blog Virtual Salt, Semantics2 –  posted in June of 2000.

Sometimes nouns have more than one meaning. A noun’s denotation is its literal meaning, the way it would be defined in a dictionary. A noun’s connotation is its implied meaning, such as the emotions or images the word evokes. Denotation is the specific, literal image, idea, concept, or object that a noun refers to in context. Connotations may be (1) private and personal, the result of individual experiences (2) group (national, linguistic, racial) or (3) general or universal, held by all or most men. The scientist and philosopher attempt to hold words to their denotative meaning; the literary artist or management guru rely on connotations to carry their deepest meanings. We might say that a noun’s connotation is the emotional meaning not typically found in a dictionary.

To complicate things, nouns may have four different kinds of definitions: Descriptive, Stipulative, Normative and Persuasive.

The Descriptive definition is, the kind that tells what a thing is or is like, the kind usually found in the dictionary.

The Stipulative is a special definition offered by a writer or organization for convenience of understanding.  This is a mutually agreed upon special, specific meaning of a term that ordinarily has another meaning, or a similar but vague meaning.

The Normative definition is intended to set a standard or even a goal for something rather than to describe the thing as it really is. The confusing aspect of normative and descriptive definitions is a common source of misunderstanding.

The Persuasive definition is designed to persuade the reader or hearer of the worth of the defined term.

Clearly then, how we decide to  “define” our concept nouns depends, in part, on the purpose of what we are trying to convey to the reader or to society in general.  Far too often we are turning to the connotative, stipulative, normative and persuasive definitions of our concept nouns because they can generate more emotion or promote an agenda. A critical step toward developing a deep understanding of a concept starts with the realization that the noun in question is a concept and we need to be careful how we define them.

Some experts take issue with the act of simply defining concepts – next post.