A genus-differentia definition is one in which a word or concept that indicates a species -- a specific type of item, not necessarily a biological category -- is described first by a broader category, the genus, then distinguished from other items in that category by differentia. The differentia of a species are the species' properties that other members of the genus do not have. In short, the genus is the broad category, the species is a type within that category, and the differentia are the distinguishing characteristics of the species.

Under the "genus" and "species" description, this sort of definition is used to categorize different plants, animals and other things into biological categories. See also genus and species and Linnaean taxonomy.

This can be clarified with a hackneyed example. Suppose we wanted to define the phrase human being. Following the ancient Greeks (Socrates and his successors) and modern biologists, we say that human beings are members of a species. So we ask what the genus, or general category, of the species is; the Greeks (but not the biologists) would say that the genus is animal. The genus, then, is animal and the species is human being. What are the differentia of the species, that is, the distinguishing characteristics, that is, the properties that human beings have, that other animals do not have? The Greeks said it is rationality: the things that humans have that other animals do not is rationality. So rationality is the differentia of the human species, according to the ancient Greeks; thus Aristotle said, "Man is the rational animal." By this he meant to be giving a definition of "man," or of "human being."

However, the use of the genus-differentia definition is by no means restricted to science. Rather, it is the natural thing to do if you are to explain the meaning of a particular word to someone. With this, the "classical" type of definition (Definitio fit per genus proximum et differentiam specificam.), you use the copula (is, are) after the definiendum (just as if you were using an equals sign in a mathematical equation) and then go on to explain the definiendum by using the appropriate generic term plus those characteristics specific to the thing you are describing which consecutively narrow down the meaning until the definiendum can no longer be confused with anything else.

Some examples from everyday life:

  • A paperweight is a small, heavy object which is placed on papers to prevent them from being scattered.

paperweight -- definiendum
object -- generic term
small but heavy, placed on papers, reason why -- differentiae specificae

  • Homesickness is the feeling of unhappiness you may experience when you are away from home and miss your home and your family very much.

  • Subtitles are the printed translation that you can read at the bottom of the screen when you are watching a foreign film.

  • In film and broadcasting, a soundbite is a very short piece of footage taken from a longer speech or interview in which someone with authority says something which is considered by those who edit the speech or interview to be a most important point.

  • A mosque is a building, often with high towers and domes, where Muslims go to worship.