Some points about defining things

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A definition essay is writing that explains what a term means. Some terms have definite, concrete meanings, such as glass, book, or tree. Terms such as honesty, honor, or love are abstract and depend more on a person's point of view. First, don't rely on that old cliché of the dictionary or encyclopedia definition. Even if your intent is to show how inadequate or wrong-headed the dictionary might be, this device has been used far too often to be effective. The point of your essay is to provide your reader with a new way of looking at things — your way, not Noah Webster's. However, you should check it out in order to see what the definition says in the dictionary. You may also want to look up what a few famous people said about the word or the meaning of the word (see web resources on syllabus). Another suggestion is to use the Oxford English Dictionary (available through GALILEO) as a jumping-off point. Use concrete details and personal experience to make the abstract definition more real by showing exactly what the word means to you.

All words have dictionary definitions but these create denotative meanings. For example, a crab can be either a crustacean or metaphysically someone in a bad mood. Either way, the words crab has a specific denotative meaning. It can also make some people sick. For these people, the denotative meaning of a crab is wrapped up with a negative connotative meaning of feeling ill.

Some points about defining things:

  • Avoid using the phrases "is where" and "is when" in your definition: "Total Quality Management is when management and labor agree to. . . ." "A computer virus is where . . . ."

  • Avoid circular definitions (repeating the defined term within the predicate, the definition itself): "A computer virus is a virus that destroys or disrupts software . . ."

  • Avoid using a too narrow definition, one that would unduly limit the scope of your paper: "Reggae music is sung on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. . . ."

Read the following example by Desmond Morris and see how he defines the term in the topic sentence and then adds an extended definition that uses negation (telling what the term is not):

“Altruism is the performance of an unselfish act. As a pattern of behavior, this act must have two properties: it must benefit someone else, and it must do so to the disadvantage of the benefactor. It is not merely a matter of being helpful; it is helpfulness at a cost to yourself.”

What To Include In A Definition Essay

  1. Define the term precisely to the readers using your own words or what someone famous said about the meaning of the word. Avoid quoting directly from a dictionary!

  2. Present clarity in your information and put it in simple easy to understand words. Use narratives, metaphors, similes, and other figurative language like allusions (see Adding Spices To The Mix) to help the reader better understand exactly what you mean.

  3. Use facts and statistics and examples that the readers can relate and understand.

  4. Your task is to make it fresh by using your own understanding and experience, so go deeper than a simple obvious dictionary definition!

  5. Use transitions to link all parts of the essay together

When writing a definition essay, you could define the term directly, giving no information other than the explanation of the term. Alternatively, it could imply the definition of the term, telling a story that requires the reader to infer the meaning as Robert Olen Butler does in “Love” (see GeorgiaVista for a copy of the story). You could explain what the word is not or develop what the concept is or does by illustrating with brief examples as Judy brady does in “I Want a Wife” (see GeorgiaVista for a copy of this essay).

However, abstract terms, such as love, pain, or patriotism, have different meanings for different individuals since such terms play on people’s feelings more than their physical senses. Thus, the definition essay provides a personal, extended definition of such terms by linking or comparing the term to a previous definition and by illustrating how that term should be applied.

Before you begin— Steps for Prewriting

Complete the following steps in the process of collecting details for your definition essay:

1. Select a word that you plan to investigate. The word should have some interest, importance, or meaning to you personally. Example: Beauty, persistence, enlightenment, punishment etc.

2. Begin by writing down a few simple statements about your word: "Laughter is ......"

3. Now record the word's dictionary definition:

4. Classify your word:

Part of Speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb

General Type: character trait, political term, value, religion, literary term, etc.


5. In a thesaurus, discover words that have similar meanings.

6. Differentiate:

a. Write out a series of negative definitions: (Laughter is not.....)

b. Make a list of subtle and borderline comparisons: (Laughter may seem similar to humor, but ....)

7. Identify at least two extended examples which illustrate the word.



8. After your research, determine a particular thesis or main idea about your word.
Prewriting Sample (very brief):

What is a woman?  A woman is a female by denotation, but the connotations are almost limitless.  A woman is a marvelous creation designed for multiple applications.  From her controversial beginnings in the Garden of Eden, to her place in modern culture, woman has never been without her critics.  Despite being blamed for the downfall of man, woman has managed to survive right along with her male counterpart.  A woman may be classified in many ways:  as a mother, a daughter, a sister or friend; as a laborer or a professional; but, in recent years, women have become harder and harder to classify by their roles or their careers.  Instead, a woman may be described as nurturing, but she is also competitive and a risk-taker.  She must be tough and resilient as well as living up to her reputation for tenderness and softness.  She has fought to overcome old stereotypes of hysteria and emotional outbursts.  Modern culture requires women to be savvy, well-educated, nurturing and self-supporting.  No free rides for this modern female.  A woman, however, no matter how accomplished and well-rounded is not a man.  She does not crave the remote control, she does not engage in "testosterone tests" shouldering her opponents out of the way!  No, though able to compete with the best, she is always conscious of bringing friends (and enemies) to a higher level.  The future looks good for woman.  She is a traditional part of the past, a worthy participant in the present, and a dynamic force for the future.

Sample Outline (you will need to do some sort of prewriting/brainstorming!!)

  1. Introduction

    1. Attention Grabber or Hook

    2. Your definition in your own words (avoid dictionaries here)

      1. Tell how it is different from other terms of its class

    3. Quote(s) from a famous person – optional but adds authenticity

    4. Transition + Thesis: Thus, patriotism is speaking out when a person feels the country is right or wrong, voting, and respecting others.

  1. Background Information if needed

  2. Body

  1. Speaking out when country is wrong

      1. Vietnam

      2. Slavery

      3. Women’s right to vote

  1. Speaking out when country is right

  1. Afghanistan

  2. Banking reform

  1. Voting

  1. Making a choice based on one’s needs

  2. Being involved in the voting process

  1. Respecting Others

  1. Paying taxes

  2. Respecting others’ point of view

  3. Arab-American prejudice after 9/11

  1. Conclusion

  1. Review of patriot as protestor, voter, and respectful citizen

  2. Closing attention getter: return to introduction’s image of patriot or how your definition of patriot has affected you

You can see another outline that goes into further explanation of what a definition essay is and is not:

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