Do You Have To Cite A Definition? The Best Answer You Can Find

do you have to cite a
by CJ McDaniel // July 27  

Definitions refer to a statement describing a term. The primary aim is to provide the meaning of the term so that anyone who reads it can understand without breaking a sweat. The objective is not to confuse anyone, as many people think.

Authors use definition, likewise students and academicians. There is nothing wrong with using definitions in a book. But then, since the idea doesn’t belong to you, do you have to cite it?

These and many more questions are what we will be answering in this post. So continue reading to learn more.

Do You Have To Cite A Definition?

Most persons will answer in the affirmative. In writing, definitions form part of your work. Just like you cite sources of other information, you must cite the source of your definition. It will give your work credibility, and you also avoid the risk of plagiarism.

Citing definitions can also show the extent of your research on the topic. For a non-dictionary definition, other sources will most likely be the work of professionals in the field. These sources may have a more robust exposition of your topic. Your definition refers your reader to these sources for further clarification where the need arises.

Definitions can be very tricky. You will find some terms with no clear-cut definition. It should tell you that defining terms can be a rigorous and challenging process. Someone has put in work to come up with a meaningful definition; the person should give credit. Not giving credit amounts to plagiarism.

Citing a definition also streamlines the concept in your work. If you are writing under a particular discipline, your definition will show that you adhered to the standards set by that discipline. 

Why Should You Define Terms When Writing?

The English language has millions of words. No one can claim they know everything. As you research and write, you’re bound to discover new words or terms.

To understand a term, you have to find its meaning. But when you’re the one writing, expect that your readers may not be familiar with all your terms. That’s why you have to define them.

Defining new terms will make your reader go through your work without having to recourse to another source to get an understanding before coming back to continue reading. Some words may have several meanings. You may also have formed a new term to fit into a concept in your work or used a word in a particular way.

Definitions enable readers to understand the meaning of terms. A wrong definition or mistakes can mislead readers.

This explains why when you use a definition; it’s crucial to review it. Check the meaning to know if it’s right or fits into your work context.

Not defining a term also has its downside. Such an act would not only leave your readers confused. They may decide to develop a wrong meaning of the term on their own.

In some schools, the definition of terms is part of academic work, such as thesis and dissertation. It covers one chapter of the work usually written as “Definition of Terms.” This chapter is placed at the beginning of the work and defines the keywords and phrases used.

Usually, the definitions contained will be from the writer’s perspective. If he can create his definitions, there will be no need for citation as he will only be citing himself. If he builds on another’s definitions, there will undoubtedly be the need for citation.

For a student writing a thesis, the definition gives the supervisor the impression that the student does understand the topic. Whether the writer quotes the source verbatim, summarises, or paraphrases, he/she should always reference that source.

Where To Get Definitions

There are several places one can find the meaning of words. The commonest of these is the dictionary. Also, there are different kinds of dictionaries. Some common examples are Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary, and so on.

You can also get definitions from professionals in the field. For example, you could get the meaning of psychology from a Professor of Psychology.

It is also common for authors and writers to use definitions in their work. There’s nothing wrong with that. The only issue is the definition belongs to someone else.

What Makes A Good Definition?

It is not enough to lift a definition from a source and reproduce it in your work. Definitions used should have meaning and contribute to the work. If the definition adds nothing to your work, then you should leave it out. For a definition to be useful, it should be precise and accurate.

The definition is not an opportunity to explain everything about the term defined. It should only give as much information that would enable the reader to understand it in the context in which it is used. A broad meaning will only lead to further confusion. It should not be vague either but bring clarity to your work.

 Things That Do Not Need Citation

Some terms and concepts do not need citing. And as a writer, it is essential to know what needs and doesn’t require citations.

Here are some good examples:

Common knowledge

This refers to information that is available in several sources. The facts are widely known, and there can be no dispute about it. For example: “The Coronavirus became a pandemic in 2019.”

  1. Terms, concepts, ideas, and opinions that are tours do not need to be cited.
  2. Common sayings and proverbs. For example: “Make haste while the sun shines.”

How To Cite Definitions

You can cite a definition by quoting your source verbatim. The definition will have a quotation sign and the author referenced.

Definitions can also be summarised or paraphrased. Where this is done, it is still necessary to reveal your source.

Where the direct quote is available, you should use it. It is because paraphrasing can alter the meaning the author intended.

Using Definitions From A Dictionary: What You Need To Know 

There are regular dictionaries like The Oxford Learners Dictionary. Also, there are single discipline dictionaries like the Black’s Law Dictionary.

The regular dictionary will provide the general meaning of a term. Such meaning is usually broad and context-dependent. It is the meaning your reader will most likely assign to your term, especially when he is not conversant with the discipline you have written on.

The single discipline dictionaries define terms in more concise ways. They restrict the meaning attached to a term to the discipline in question. Even in such situations, the writer still has to ensure that the meaning fits in.

Where a single discipline dictionary is available, the writer should use it, especially in academic works. Your writing makes more sense, and the reader does not make conjectures based on broad meanings.

You want your reader to understand what you mean and not just what you have written. When choosing a dictionary as your source, you should be sure the definition provided agrees with what you have in mind.

How To Cite A Dictionary

Most dictionaries now have online and print versions. Both versions are cited differently. The reference manual you are using for your work should serve as a guide.

The online dictionary:

You can cite an online dictionary using the APA format below:

In-text citation: Use the name of the publisher and year of publication.

Example: (Merriam-Webster. n.d)

Reference list

  • The author – in this case, will be the publishing organization. (Example: Webster)
  • The year of publication
  • The term you are defining
  • The publisher, if different from the author
  • The URL

Example: Merriam-Webster. (n.d.) Faction. In dictionary. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from

The print dictionary:

Some print dictionaries may have specific authors for some terms. It is more common in single discipline dictionaries. Your citation should show both the author and the publisher in their appropriate places where the author is mentioned.

In-text citation: Use the name of the publisher and year of publication.

Example (Oxford 2001)

Reference List

  • The author – in this case, will be the publishing organization. Example Webster
  • The Publication year
  • The term you are defining
  • Edition and page number in parentheses
  • Page number

Example: Oxford. (2001). Faction. In Oxford Dictionary of Current English (3th ed., p. 320).


Definitions are essential for an easy understanding of your work. If you created these definitions, there would be no need for citations. But when you pulled your definitions from some other sources, you should give credit.

Even where one thinks you need not cite definitions or where it is not a crucial part of the work, it is still good practice to always give credit for information that is not originally yours.

When writing, we have to define essential concepts that will enhance the reader’s reading experience.

About the Author

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!