Dictionary Definitions

It may be useful to consult a dictionary when you are in the process of exploring the various possible meanings of one of the key terms we discuss in TOK—truth, or knowledge, or validity, or proof.

However, when it comes time to make an oral presentation or write an essay, do not use dictionary definitions.

Why not?

  1. In English, dictionaries are written descriptively, not prescriptively. In other words, the authors and editors do not sit down and decide what each word should mean. Instead, they collect examples of each word being spoken and written, and based on that evidence they describe what the word means in all its various forms and contexts. When the meaning of a word changes over time, it is not because some panel of experts has decided that the meaning should change. Rather, dictionary definitions change to reflect the ways in which words are actually used by people speaking and writing English. As a result, dictionary definitions have no particular authority; they simply reflect the ways in which words are popularly used.
  2. TOK examiners will assume that you know the dictionary definitions of the words you use. The question is, how do you understand the various meanings of the key terms, and the circumstances in which one meaning or another will be most appropriate or useful? You are expected, in short, to go far beyond any dictionary definition.

Beginning your oral presentation or TOK essay by referring to a dictionary definition is like putting a notice to the examiner right at the start: “Dear examiner, I have not thought deeply about these questions, so please do not expect too much.”

Don’t do it.

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