Define and describe are two words that have a very similar meaning in that both of them seek to explain an object. However, there are very subtle differences between the two terms.
‘To define’ and ‘to describe’ things mean that both terms are verbs. They are both concerned with explaining aspects of another object. The literal definition of describe is ‘to represent in words’ while the definition for define is ‘to determine with precision; to mark out with distinctness; to ascertain or exhibit clearly.’[i]
Given the differences here, it can be said that a description seeks to explain the attributes of an object while a definition intends to explain the meaning of the object. If you dig into the meaning a little more, you can get a more general sense of what may be revealed in a description and in a definition. A description will list the properties or characteristics of a thing. If it is a living thing, traits such as behavior, actions, skills, clothing, posture and other details and history may be relevant. If giving a description of an event or incident, it would be normal to explain where it happened, when it took place, the events as they exactly occurred, and the reactions of people among other details.[ii]
In contrast to description, definition means stating exactly the nature, scope or meaning of something, which requires a very close understanding of the object or person being described.[iii] There are two types of definitions, intensional and extensional. Intensional definitions try to provide the essence of a term, while extensional definitions list the objects that a term describes.[iv]
The best way to illustrate the difference between description and the two types of definitions is through example. If we look at the term ‘dog,’ the following statements apply as each term.
Intensional Definition: a domesticated canid, Canid familiaris, bred in many varieties; any carnivore of the dog family Canidae, having prominent canine teeth and, in the wild state, a long and slender muzzle, a deep-chested muscular body, a bushy tail, and large, erect ears.[v]
Extensional Definition: this would be the set of all past, present, and future dogs in the world.[vi]
Description: the description of dogs can include general charateristics, such as ‘dogs have fur and walk on four paws’ or it can describe a specific dog, such as ‘Fido was a male yellow lab that weighed 30 kilograms (65 pounds) and had a prominent white stripe on his forehead.’
Level of detail
Since the definition serves to only give the general meaning and common, shared characteristics of the defined thing, it often only provides a very general idea of something. In contrast, a description frequently has more details than a definition which can identify something or someone much more precisely.[vii]
Using the word ‘human being’ as an example,
Definition: an individual of the genus Homo, especially a member of the species Homo sapiens; a person, especially as distinguished from other animals or as representing the human species.
Description 1: may consist of general traits that are common to all or most humans, such as ‘Humans walk on two legs, have two arms, two eyes, two ears, one nose and one mouth,’ or ‘Humans habitate the planet earth and require air, water, and food to survive.’ This type of description is common to all humans.
Description 2: may consist of particular traits that are specific to one individual or one group of individuals, such as ‘Paul is 6’3,” weighs 200 pounds, and has brown eyes and brown hair,’ or ‘Accounting for almost half of the global population, most humans have Type O blood.’ This type of description is only common to one, or some, of the humans that exist.
Unlike definition, the term description is also used to reference one of the 4 most common rhetorical modes of discourse. These seek to display the variety, conventions, and purposes of language-based communication . Along with description, the other four common rhetorical modes are narration, exposition, and argumentation. Narration functions by telling a story or describing a set of events using descriptive language and arranging it in a logical or chronological order. It is distinct in that it operates in order to help others see a clear sequence that is separate from other mental function. Examples of this rhetorical mode are anecdotes, biographies or novels. Expository writing functions to explain, inform, or even describe. Examples of this may be reports, news articles, and technical or academic writing. Argumentation is also considered to be persuasive writing and it operates in order to prove the validity or something, whether it be an idea or opinion by presenting reasoning, discussion, ad argument structured to convince the reader. Examples here are advertising, editorials, resumes, and even satirical rhetoric.[viii]
While these 3 modes all contain descriptive elements, the term description refers to its own distinct rhetorical mode. In this sense, description means to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can create a mental picture of what is being described. Common examples of descriptive writing are journal entries and poetry.[ix]
Definition is sometimes considered a rhetorical mode as well (though much less frequently than the 4 types already listed). In this sense, it would come to mean ‘the process of explaining a word, object, or idea in such a way that the reader knows precisely what the writer means. A good definition focuses on the special qualities of a word or phrase that set it apart.’[x]