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8.5 Definitions that are helpful and are not contrived to create artificial concepts

See 8.5 of the Checklist »

We use definitions to give a standard meaning to words or phrases that occur throughout a document or part of a document. They are useful because they avoid having to repeat explanations and lengthy text, and they provide meaning and clarification.

Don't use definitions unless you have to

It is not helpful to define a term if, in the context in which the term appears, the term is used in its ordinary sense and its meaning is clear. In fact, it is best to avoid defining terms at all, if possible.

Defined terms can annoy the reader because they are obliged to refer to another part of a document to find the meaning. Also, the reader needs to remember which terms are defined because the usual meanings do not apply. When faced with many definitions, the reader can find this an overly complex task—or even forget that a definition exists.

For long documents or unfamiliar documents (such as legislation), the reader may not realise that terms have special meanings and that a list of them exists somewhere.

Where definitions are helpful

Definitions can help to ensure that words are used consistently within a document. This makes the document simpler and clearer. For example, if a document defines the word “operation” and then uses it in several places, the reader can be confident the same sense of that word applies everywhere the document refers to the operation of a vehicle or an aircraft.

To make definitions helpful to the reader, use them only when necessary and to:

  • give meaning to a word that is different from its commonly understood meaning
  • give precision to a word, such as when it is vague or intended to have only one possible meaning

  • limit or extend the meaning of a word

  • avoid excessive repetition or over-long text in a document

  • allow the use of an acronym or abbreviation

  • keep concepts used in the document simpleconsistent, and clear.

Example 1—departing from a commonly understood meaning
tick.gif boat means a vessel of any size or kind for transport by water, and includes a hovercraft
Examples 2 and 3—giving precision
tick.gif   handle, in relation to a hazardous substance, does not include— 
(a) transporting the substance; or
(b) loading the substance onto, or unloading it from, a vehicle or other mode of transport

This definition removes ambiguity about what is meant by a word in a particular context. It narrows the meaning by excluding 2 elements of several meanings.

tick.gif child means a person under the age of 14 years

The word “child” could otherwise depend on the reader’s interpretation of what it means to be a child.

You can use a “means” (or “is”) definition to set the limits of a term. This is useful for vague, ambiguous words or ones with a number of different meanings.

Example 4—limiting or extending the usual meaning
tick.gif fish includes shell fish and marine animals
tick.gif grain does not include rice
Example 5—avoiding excessive repetition or over-long text
tick.gif Convention means the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction
tick.gif licence means a licence to fish on a recreational basis that is issued under section 8
Example 6—allowing use of acronyms or abbreviations
tick.gif ACC means the Accident Compensation Corporation continued by section 259 of the Accident Compensation Act 2001

When definitions are unhelpful

Definitions must not:

  • state the obvious or simply reiterate the dictionary definition

  • give an artificial or unnatural sense to the defined word or otherwise be misleading

  • be used elsewhere in the same document with a different intended meaning

  • contain substantive content.

You should avoid a chain of definitions that requires a reader to bounce between definitions—or even different legislation—to understand a concept.

Avoid using a defined term in the same document in a different sense. It will make the document inconsistent and unclear.

Avoid contrived or misleading definitions

A definition must not have an artificial or unnatural meaning. In other words, it must not be overly stretched or counter-intuitive.

A definition that places a completely artificial meaning on a term does not contribute to effective communication because it interferes with the reader’s understanding of the document’s content and context.

Example 7
cross.gif cattle means an animal of the bovine species, and includes a cat, horse, mule, pig, sheep, or goat

This definition gives an unnatural sense to a word that is commonly understood, which misleads the reader.

It is also important that the defined term conveys some indication of the term’s meaning. An example of a defined term that could be misleading is:

Examples 8 and 9
cross.gif Mode B means an appropriation for the costs to be incurred by a department or Office of Parliament in the supply of a specified class of outputs

The term “Mode B” is ineffective at conveying the meaning of the concept being defined and could be misleading. It would be more appropriate to use a term that better describes the definition’s content:

tick.gif class appropriation means an appropriation for the costs to be incurred by a department or Office of Parliament in the supply of a specified class of outputs

Do not use a short form of a name or thing if it could lead to confusion between the abbreviation and a common word. For example, defining a “church” to mean the Anglican Church could be confused with “a church” meaning a building used as a church.

Avoid definitions containing substantive content

A definition must not contain substantive matter or state an operative provision of law. The reader must be able to assume that a set of definitions does not provide for the main rules or content of a document.

For example, whether a power has been conferred should not have to be inferred from the content of the definition. Instead, a definition can refer to the substantive provision that confers the specific power.

Example 10
cross.gif Commissioner means the Health and Disability Commissioner to be appointed by the Minister by notice in the Gazette

This definition may be ambiguous. Could the definition be construed as conferring a power or imposing a duty?

Example 11
tick.gif Commissioner means the Health and Disability Commissioner appointed under section 8

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