All About Glosses, or Brief Definitions

By Mark Nichol

One of my pet peeves as an editor (and editors are notoriously peevish, and we only become more so with experience) is the presentation of glosses. A gloss, in language, is a brief definition or explanation of an unfamiliar term or concept. (The previous sentence includes a gloss of the word gloss, though a fairly long one; they often consist of a single word, or several at most.)

Two of the more familiar definitions of gloss as a noun can be described as “a concealment of truth” (virtually antonymic to the meaning under discussion here) and “an act of putting a positive spin on something,” which is related to the connotation of deceit; the sense of gloss as “explanation,” however, is more akin to the idea of providing a sheen with a clear view to what’s underneath, as in “lip gloss” or “high-gloss paint.”

One problem with language glosses is that they invite the use of scare quotes, or gratuitous quotation marks that frame a word or phrase to provide emphasis. (That last phrase is a gloss of “scare quotes.” Also, understand that the quotes here, in turn, are not scare quotes but, rather, valid markers of a phrase I want to call out for attention, like a word italicized to emphasize that the word itself, not the thing, is under discussion.)

Note the unnecessary use of scare quotes in the following sentence (formatted as single quotation marks because the sample sentence is framed in double quotes):

“The trend of cross-border reproductive care, or ‘medical tourism,’ is popular in Europe.”

But there’s another, equally egregious issue: The gloss precedes the term. In addition to omitting the scare quotes, introduce the term, then gloss it, not the other way around:

“The trend of medical tourism, or cross-border reproductive care, is popular in Europe.”

Scare quotes are extraneous when introducing slang, too. Look at this sentence:

“I realized she was speaking Singaporean English, or ‘Singlish.’”

The scare quotes are condescending, as if the writer is holding the reader’s hand, patting it, and saying, “There, there, dear. I’ll protect you from any scary words you haven’t seen before. See? There’s one up ahead right now.”

And, again, why explain the term before the reader reads it? Let the reader dance on the precipice of danger for an instant:

“I realized she was speaking Singlish, or Singaporean English.”

Worse yet when glosses are concerned is the absence of appositive punctuation, as here:

“They built the domed snow houses or igloos most people associate with Eskimos.”

Never mind that igloos is not exactly an exotic term, and that the definition precedes it; the lack of internal punctuation implies that the object is “domed snow houses or (domed) igloos.” In fact, the object is “domed snow houses,” followed by the appositive term igloos.

(An appositive is a term equivalent in meaning to another one, as in “the writer Melville” or “the country of Morocco” or “the runner-up, Smith.” Note that common appositives are set off from proper ones with commas only if they’re restrictive, or can apply only to a specific corresponding noun. There — there’s another gloss right there.)

Notice that the first two examples in this post correctly set the gloss off from the defined term with a brace of commas. The correct form of the third example follows:

“They built the igloos, or domed snow houses, most people associate with Eskimos.”

The bottom line: Put a shine on your glosses by placing them after the defined term and framing them within commas (or parentheses or em dashes, if either seems more appropriate).

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5 Responses to “All About Glosses, or Brief Definitions”

  • Kathryn

    Useful and clear advice. However, to be picky, “gloss” meaning “brief explanation” and “gloss” meaning “surface luster” are from entirely different etymological roots–and if high-gloss paint left a clear view of what’s underneath it would be varnish.

  • Deborah H

    Peevish is a lovely word. Let’s add it to that list of words we like.

  • Cassandra

    So, like a glossary?

  • Mark Nichol

    Cassandra:

    Yes, glossary and gloss both refer to brief definitions. A glossary is an alphabetized list of words and their meanings, and a gloss is the meaning of a single term.

  • wade

    Mark, I’m a stickler over correct language usage, too. Only I’m finding out that there really isn’t a correct way to use language; there’s just egregiously incorrect ways of using it. The point of language, after all, is to communicate an idea to some one else. If one can do this with a broken typewriter (say, one that is missing half its keys, including half its punctuation keys), then great. The only thing left to squabble over is one of aesthetics and general personal preference. Personally, I prefer sometimes to put the “gloss” before the “term.” It all depends on the context…and my mood. 🙂

    Email me if you dig.

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