Establish Your Authority by Defining Terms in Your Own Words

I’ve seen a lot of books, both published and unpublished, in which authors use what I call the “Webster cliché.” This is the bit where the author brings up some aspect of his topic, and then, assuming the element is unfamiliar to the reader, writes something like this:

Webster’s defines “element” as “one of the simple substances air, water, fire, and earth of which according to early natural philosophers the physical universe was composed.”

This is a problem, and not only because I picked a different definition of “element” than one would expect from the context of the first paragraph.

dictionary cliche
Dictionaries, and dictionary apps, are useful. But don’t use them as crutches when you’re writing.

For starters, “Webster’s” is an incomplete citation. The complete citation for the definition above would be: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. “element,” accessed February 12, 2013,

Yeah. We all know you meant that. The point is that “Webster’s” alone doesn’t mean anything.

Difficulties protecting the Webster trademark led to a proliferation of dictionaries with the name Webster on them, until by the middle of the twentieth century almost any dictionary might be labeled Webster’s, regardless of the quality of its lexicography or its connection, if any, to the work of Noah Webster.

If one were to write “The dictionary defines ‘element’ as…” the problem is compounded, because “the” implies there is only one, when in fact there are many. Fortunately, the OneLook Dictionary Search website offers a quick way to get at most of them. Both The Chicago Manual of Style and The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style recommend Webster’s Third New World International Dictionary for an unabridged dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for an abridgement, while the Associated Press recommends Webster’s New World College Dictionary. See what I mean about Webster?

Citations aren’t the major problem, though. In one published book I read last year, the author employed the Webster cliché eleven times within in the first few chapters. It became repetitive and annoying.

But, you argue, one must ensure the reader understands what one means when one says “element.”

Yes. Do that by telling the reader what you mean. Do it on your own authority. If you are writing a book, you are an expert in your field. Be the expert. You don’t need ol’ Noah Webster or either of the Merriam brothers to do it for you. Just say it in your own words.

An element is any part that contributes to the whole.

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