definition-390785_1920Two years ago, Stoa Value debaters dedicated themselves to debating the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law.  As you might expect, definitions were central to the understanding of the resolution.  As with any generally ambiguous topic, certain debaters took advantage of this to define the spirit of the law in many disingenuous ways.  

A popular choice was to define the spirit of the law as ‘a social and moral consensus on the interpretation of the law.”  This is in contrast to the general understanding of the spirit of the law as the intent behind the law, and it took some digging to find.  This definition was so popular among Affirmatives, who took the opportunity to argue that what the law actually says is more important than what the society as a whole thinks it means, that I eventually resorted to finding the source.  It came from a sociological study done several years ago and stood in contrast to the vast majority of definitions available.  Using this source to define the conflict subverted the entire debate and made judges frustrated when Negatives unavoidably had to disagree with definitions.  

Normally, over the course of the season a general consensus on what the resolution means arises, but sometimes people will no doubt present definitions that are bad or unfair, or choose to disagree with your definitions.  This means it is important to understand how to attack or defend definitions.  But let us first understand the importance behind definitions.

Goal of Definitions

Definitions are around to make the debate clearer by ensuring that debaters don’t spend the whole debate talking past each other.  When deciding which definitions to use, there are two broad guidelines to follow to have a good debate.

Definitions should be educational

Definitions should stick to a correct understanding of the words within the resolution. They should reflect a scholarly consensus on what words mean as well as fit within the resolution.  For example, rehabilitation in the NCFCA resolution should not be defined as “to restore former privileges”, since that is not what people generally mean when talking about rehabilitation, nor should it be defined as ‘the act of helping a person who has suffered an injury regain full use of their body,” since that does not actually fit within the context of the resolution.  The bottom line is that definitions should stick to an accepted meaning of the words within the resolution.

Definitions should be fair

Not only should a definition be appropriate to the topic, but it should also be acceptable to both sides.  This will probably help to avoid a dreaded definition debate, as well as ensuring that both debaters are talking about the same things.  A good test is whether you, as negative or affirmative, would accept the definitions you use on the other side.  Ideally, you should only have one definition sheet for both sides.  Trying to define yourself into victory harms both competition and the educational value of debating.  

However, some debaters will always seek to define themselves into victory.  So you need to be able to attack unfair definitions presented by an Affirmative and defend your own definitions.  The way to do that is through Reasons to Prefer.  Naturally, some reasons to prefer are stronger than others.  So here’s a comprehensive listing of reasons to prefer, ordered from least to most persuasive.

List of Reasons to Prefer

11. Framer’s Intent

Definition: Argument that the framers of the resolution intended us to use this definition

Example: We should use my definition of the spirit of the law as the intent behind a law because it was clearly what the framers intended.

Reason for Ranking: I have placed this argument as the weakest among the reasons to prefer primarily because it is very hard to create warrants for this argument.  It is very difficult to tell exactly what resolution the writers intended.  If a resolution is lucky, the writers will put out a paragraph of material on the subject, which is not nearly enough to construct a cogent argument about.  Besides that, what the framers intended is often forgotten later in the season.  With the Stoa resolution this year (the needs of the public vs. private property rights), the source material was mostly about eminent domain, a conflict which has been neglected in certain regions in favor of things like taxes or drug laws.  Precisely what was intended by resolution writers is very hard to determine and is often ignored later on in the season, meaning that warrants for arguments under this point are decidedly lacking.  

The other reason why this should be avoided if at all possible is because there are far better choices to use to win a definitional debate.  Chances are the resolution writers explored the dictionary definitions of the terms in the resolution, meaning that a debater can probably find an appropriate reason to prefer while avoiding this argument.  

When to use: I cannot think of a single scenario in which this argument should be deployed, unless the resolution writers told you themselves that the third definition from the top in the New Oxford American Dictionary was exactly what they planned on using for the resolution.  But using that as a warrant wouldn’t work because it would violate the evidence standards of both NCFCA and Stoa.  So I can’t think of a single reason to employ this reason to prefer.

10. Balance/Fairness

Definition: An argument that this definition is more fair so it should be used

Example: My opponent defined retribution as vengeance.  We should use my definition instead (punishment for doing something wrong), because it is unfair to make me defend vengeance.  This provides good ground for Negative arguments to be made.  

Reason for Ranking: In the mind of many judges, complaining about the definitions because they are “unfair” sounds whiny (my mom included).  It sounds like “I didn’t like my opponent’s definition, so change it.”  This makes you look petty and takes away from your credibility.  This reason also leaves it up to the judge to decide which definition is more fair, which provides no objective standard for what is a better choice (not an ideal situation at all).

Beyond that, fairness is secondary to educational value.  It is more important to debate the resolution within the context of how it is defined by the scholars who write papers on the topic than to simply make the topic fair.  Academics write papers about this topic and others that high schoolers debate, but never do they redefine terms for the sake of fairness.  Academic discussion relies on what ideas actually mean, rather than what is most balanced.

When to Use: If your opponent defines rehabilitation as “all that is good with the world” and retribution as ‘genocide and plague” then this may be an appropriate reason to prefer.  But it should never be your only reason to prefer, and should preferably be relegated to situations in which the definition is so obviously unfair that the judge should already be thinking “that’s unfair’ before you say anything about it.  

9. Older/Newer

Definition: An argument that a definition is more appropriate because it is either older or newer than the alternative.

Example: My opponents defined marriage as a the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex or of the same sex in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law, which was from Merriam-Webster.  You should prefer my definition of “The act of uniting a man and woman for life” from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary because it is older.  It is not tainted by modern beliefs and gives us an accurate perspective on what marriage has been throughout history.”  

Reason for Ranking: This argument doesn’t hold a lot of weight because the timing of the definition rarely has a measurable impact on the judge’s thoughts about using it.  It will tend, in most cases, to be one of the irrelevant points forgotten in the round.  There are only a few cases in which it actually plays well, but in those cases the arguments on both sides are strong enough that arguing this point often develops into a see-saw argument that goes nowhere.  

When to Use: There are a few situations in which this can be effectively deployed- when the meaning of a word has changed substantially over time (preferably the change has been fairly recent).  The marriage definition was the best example I could think of.  This became a major point during the oral argument of Obergefell v. Hodges, with it being pointed out that any definition written prior to 2000 only included heterosexual marriage.  The definition of a country in a Policy round is another possibility.  But beyond those few examples, this is of limited applicability.  Keep it in your back pocket for parli rounds, but don’t use it arbitrarily.  

8. More Credible Source

Definition: An argument claiming that the source for the definition is more credible than the alternative.

Example: My opponent’s definition of rehabilitation was from  We should use mine instead because it is from Merriam-Webster, which is a more credible source because it is a published dictionary.

Reason for Ranking: This argument is, quite simply, fairly unpersuasive.  It is interesting from an academic standpoint, but it simply does not matter to a lot of judges how credible the source for the definition is.  Judges would generally prefer an appropriate definition to a published one.  So this argument tends to hold little weight with many judges.

When to Use: The primary arena to use this argument is in situations where the definition is sourced from a blog or other uncredited websites.  If your opponent has argued a definition from Wikipedia, this argument can be very appropriate.  

7. Man on the Street

Definition: An argument claiming that this definition is what the average person would associate with the term.

Example: My opponent defined Justice conceptually as Plato did, saying that Justice was all the three classes of society: workers, warriors, and philosopher-kings working well together.  You should prefer my definition of giving what people deserve because it is what people generally associate with the term.  This is what the man on the street would define as justice.

Reason for Ranking: This argument is strong in that it is commonsensical.  If your opponent defines something in some strange, out-of-the-box way, Man on the Street can paint you as the one who is more credible, actually understanding the term.  But this becomes difficult when the term becomes more complex.  Man on the Street relies on a consensus for what a word means, but if that consensus does not exist, either because the word is not used very often or because how it is defined often differs, this reason to prefer proves to be weak.

When to Use: When an opponent defines a well-known term in a strange way, this is an appropriate and credibility-building response.  Beyond that, it should not be used.  

6. Scholar/Expert/Actor Preference

Definition: An argument claiming that this definition is that which is employed by the people in the field that studies the topic.  

Example: My opponents defined agriculture policy as “policy relating to the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products.”  We should instead use as the standard for agriculture policy all the regulations within Title VII of the US Code because this is the expert preference.  The experts who deal with agriculture policy see it as this group of laws.  So should we.

Reason for Ranking: This is a relatively strong reason to prefer because it is very real-world in its outlook.  Many of the resolutions employed by high school leagues are debated among scholars and policy analysts for a living, so their definitions of the terms involved help to relieve the disconnect between real life and debaterland.  This can be very persuasive to judges.  But on the other hand, it can be hard to find a consensus among academics or clearly defined terms in the literature.  For example, the definition of retribution itself has been debated by academics for years.  Scholar/Expert preference will be strong as long as a consensus exists.

When to Use: This can be a solid argument to use when an opponent wants to stick to generalities (e.g. rehabilitation is “making something better” or agriculture policy is ‘policy relating to animals and plants”) instead of debating the resolution properly.  Those kinds of tricks won’t fly in academia, and holding an opponent to an academic standard will ensure that he is forced to account for the complex aspects of debate, just as scholars must.

5. Dictionary Definition

Definition: An argument claiming that this definition is preferable because it was sourced from a dictionary.

Example: My opponent defined national security as “measures undertaken with the intention of furthering a nation’s interest on the world stage.”  You should prefer my definition, “the protection or the safety of a country’s secrets and its citizens” because it is a dictionary definition from Macmillan Dictionary.  It is more credible than my opponent’s definition, so it is a more appropriate choice for this round.

Reason for Ranking: This argument is strong when confronting operational definitions.  It seeks to eliminate the debater’s words from the round in favor of a published source.  The fact that it came from a dictionary will hold a lot more weight with judges than the fact that your opponent made a definition up, especially if the definition appears to be unfair.  But be aware of choosing a dictionary definition over an appropriate operational definition.  Last year, Stoa had a resolution delineating a conflict between liberal arts and practical skills in formal education.  Since no clear definition of practical skills was easily found, most people defined it as something along the lines of “teaching skills intended to assist a person in future life and career.”  But I once hit a resolutional objection combining the dictionary definition of practical and skill to argue that since liberal arts provided practical skills, there was no conflict in the resolution.  It was easily arguable that practical skills in the context of education meant something different from just combining the two dictionary definitions of the words (like how “hot dog” doesn’t mean a warm canine).  So a dictionary definition is not always automatically preferable to an operational definition.

When to Use: This argument is helpful when an opposing team presents operational definitions that abuse their privilege.  At that point, it makes sense to remind the judges that good dictionary definitions exist for the term.

4. Non-Circular

Definition: The argument that a definition is more appropriate because it does not define the term in terms of itself.  

Example: My opponent defined needs of the public as “systems necessary for society”.  This should be rejected in favor of my definition because mine is non-circular.  By defining needs of the public by renaming those same words, my opponent’s definition is fallacious and completely unhelpful.  

Reason for Ranking: This is a good argument when it applies.  If an opponent has truly decided to define a term by using that term then you have every reason to argue against it.  So what should be done is to present a non-circular counter-definition.  The weakness in this point comes because it is not particularly offensive.  It points out a logical flaw but does not do anything besides claim that your own definition lacks that flaw.  It proves to a judge that a definition is bad, but does not necessarily explain why your definition is more appropriate.

When to Use: Only when your opponent presents a circular definition should this be employed.

3. Resolutional Context

Definition: The argument that a definition better fits the resolution.

Example: My opponent defined rehabilitation as “helping a person with an injury regain full use of his body.”  You should prefer my definition of rehabilitation because of resolutional context.  This resolution deals with the criminal justice system, and the kind of rehabilitation that exists within the criminal justice system is far better captured by my definition.

Reason for Ranking: This is the ultimate test of a definition’s usefulness- how well it fits into the resolution given.  This is indeed the standard for whether or not this is a good definition at all.  If your opponent defines a term far outside of what fits the resolution, this can be a very appropriate argument against it.  But it becomes less useful as which definition better fits the context of the resolution becomes less clear.  Contrasting medical rehabilitation and criminal rehabilitation is easy, but what about definitions of private property rights?  Resolutional context is a great standard, but only goes so far.

When to Use: When an opponent’s definition is technically accurate (probably from a published source), but fails to capture the clearly intended meaning of the resolution, this is a very appropriate argument to make.

2. Multiple Sources

Definition: An argument making the claim that multiple sources support the given definition.

Example: My opponent defined private property rights as “the right to keep other people from seeing your stuff.”  You should support my definition instead because multiple dictionaries favor it.  It is well accepted by scholars that private property rights generally mean the right to do as you like with your property.  

Reason for Ranking: This argument is very good when it comes to dealing with published definitions which are a little out of the box.  In that way, it functions like the dictionary definition argument against other dictionary definitions.  This can help nail down the general idea of what a term means and give a lot of credence to your definition.  But it suffers the same flaws as the dictionary definition argument.  Just because many sources support a definition does not mean that definition is more appropriate.  

When to Use: Make use of this argument against definitions which are fringe, but published.  This became a very appropriate argument to defend the spirit of the law “intent behind the law” definition I touched on in the prefatory remarks to this post. Similar situations will find this a useful tactic.  

1.  Etymology

Definition: An argument that the origin of the word itself supports the definition.  

Example: My opponent defined retribution as “vengeance”.  We should instead define it as the imposition of deserved punishment because of etymology.  Retribution comes from the latin word retribuere, which meant to “assign back”.  This became a word in English, which originally meant “recompense for a merit or service.”  So what we can learn is that retribution has meant paying someone what they are due, which in the context of criminal justice means imposing deserved punishment.  

Reason for Ranking: This is my favorite reason to prefer ever.  Part of the reason for that is because it is so unusual.  For one thing, it is hard to find a good reason to employ.  For another, it is so little used that it is surprising and “sticky” whenever it comes up.  It will not only build your credibility but also probably be the most memorable thing from the definition debate.  The greatest weakness of this great tool, however, is that a word’s origin doesn’t necessarily indicate its meaning.  After all, words change in meaning, so you cannot assume that knowing where the word came from means that you know what it means.  It would be good to couple this reason to prefer with some others in order to ensure that you win the argument.

When to Use: The other trick about this is its limited applicability.  Retribution is a perfect example of how this can be used well, but the understanding of many debate terms (e.g. national security or the needs of the public) will not be improved by a trip to explore their origin.  But when a word like retribution is in question, etymology may be the perfect tool.  

Remember the Goal

The goal of debate is not just to win, it’s to learn.  This means that definitions should not be used as ways to guarantee success, nor should an opponent’s abusive definitions be seen as a window to present equally abusive definitions that favor your side.  Present definitions that will push an audience on toward excellence- definitions that are true and fair.  

Noah Farley is a junior in high school.  He has been debating for three years, primarily in LD and Parli.  He participates in both Stoa and NCFCA but doesn't have a favorite league yet.

Noah Farley is a junior in high school. He has been debating for three years, primarily in LD and Parli. He participates in both Stoa and NCFCA but doesn’t have a favorite league yet.


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