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For example, should I say "We must define a dice game" or "we must define what is a dice game"? I am concerned that the first one might be correct, but has a different meaning: define a dice game in particular, not the general concept of dice game.

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    1. (We must define) (a dice game)
    1. (We must define) (what is a game of dice)

"a" dice game, from example 1. could be any dice game.

It implies that it is already understood what dice games are in general, and a specific dice game is to be defined.

The second example explicitly states that the concept of dice games is to be defined.

However, the inference of the first sentence is only implicit. Therefore it would not be incorrect to have a different interpretation of the sentence. There can be no other interpretation of the second example though.

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We must define what is a dice game.

This would be understood as: Of all the games that exist, there are some that can be categorized as being a "dice game." We must establish a rule that distinguishes any given game as either belonging to this category or not.

We must define a dice game

This would be understood as: We are going to invent a dice game and describe its rules.

OR it could be the same as the first understanding, depending on context or how it is said.

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About your first wording:

We must define a dice game.

I would reword that as follows:

We must define "dice game."

You could also use italics:

We must define dice game.

When you use an indefinite article (as you did initially), that makes it sounds like you want to write the rules of a new dice game.


About your second wording:

We must define what is a dice game.

I would reorder that sentence:

We must define what a dice game is.

I like that wording better than your original, although it seems rather informal (or conversational). I probably wouldn't use that wording in a technical paper.


Other ways we could word this might include:

  • We must say what constitutes a "dice game".
  • We must provide a formal definition for dice game.

If the definition is rather short (no more than a single sentence), you could also use a colon, preceded by something like:

  • Here is our definition for dice game:
  • My definition for dice game is:
  • We define "dice game" as:
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I agree with you that "we must define what is ... " doesn't sound right.

If you want to define the general concept of "dice game", I think you could just say: We must define "dice game". [no article, and put the phrase in quotes]

People who know English well would expect you to say "a dice game" if you were talking about a set of rules for a specific game.

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Define what is a dice game. - is not a question, therefore that word order is incorrect.

Define what a dice game is.

However, a game of dice doesn't need defining. It's a dice game.

Define what a nice person is.

Define nice.

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