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9.3: Definition

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    Figure: Image by Pixabay

    The Purpose of Definition in Writing

    The purpose of a definition essay may seem self-explanatory: the purpose of the definition essay is to simply define something. But defining terms in writing is often more complicated than just consulting a dictionary. In fact, the way we define terms can have far-reaching consequences for individuals as well as collective groups. Definition of a term may vary depending on the field in which you are reading and writing.

    Take, for example, a word like alcoholism. The way in which one defines alcoholism depends on its legal, moral, and medical contexts. Lawyers may define alcoholism in terms of its legality; parents may define alcoholism in terms of its morality; and doctors will define alcoholism in terms of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. Think also of terms that people tend to debate in our broader culture. How we define words, such as marriage, violence, and climate change, has enormous impact on policy decisions and even on daily decisions. Think about conversations couples may have in which words like commitment, respect, or love need clarification.

    Defining terms within a relationship, or any other context, can at first be difficult, but once a definition is established between two people or a group of people, it is easier to have productive dialogs. Definitions, then, establish the way in which people communicate ideas. They set parameters for a given discourse, which is why they are so important.


    When writing definition essays, avoid terms that are too simple, that lack complexity. Think in terms of concepts, such as hero, immigration, or loyalty, rather than physical objects. Definitions of concepts, rather than objects, are often fluid and contentious, making for a more effective definition essay.

    Writing at Work

    Definitions play a critical role in all workplace environments. Take the term sexual harassment, for example. Sexual harassment is broadly defined on the federal level, but each company may have additional criteria that define it further. Knowing how your workplace defines and treats all sexual harassment allegations is important. Think, too, about how your company defines lateness, productivity, or contributions.

    Exercise 1

    On a separate sheet of paper, write what your definition of violence is; not an example, but a definition that would cover all types of violence.


    Please share with a classmate and compare your responses.

    Using Definitions as Part of a Paragraph

    Sometimes in the course of writing, you need to define a term for the particular context in which you are using the word. Always define the term before you use it so your reader will understand what you are saying. Some examples of smooth ways to include definitions into your paragraphs follow.

    Why Is Transparency Important?

    "Transparency" is a term that is bandied about fairly often, but what does it really mean? According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary website, "transparency" is something "transparent, especially something through which light shines." But that definition doesn't really express what it means in its common business or societal sense. The idea of transparency can be applied to objects or processes. It can apply to word choice. Transparency in a business sense means that a business explains its processes and results so that people within and outside of the company can evaluate the effectiveness of the company in relation to particular goals. For instance, a company might publish statistics about the demographics of its employee makeup by job classification. Or it may explain its business strategy or information important to accurately evaluate its financial statements. Certain laws enforce transparency -- the public visibility of and input to decision making -- on local, state, and federal government. Local governments in California must follow the Brown Act, which requires that meeting times and agendas be posted publicly for a particular amount of time before a meeting so the public has a chance to participate. State and federal legislators' voting records are public so voters can know what sort of laws their elected representatives supported or voted against. They can also know how often their representative didn't show up to vote. In terms of word choice and writing, active voice can foster transparency by ensuring the subject or agent of the sentence is clear. Transparency, therefore, aside from its literal definition, has many subtle differences in meaning depending upon the context in which the word is used.

    The above paragraph defined the same term -- "transparency" -- in three different contexts and in three different ways within the sentences. First, a dictionary definition was included using a quotation. Next, a definition was paraphrased and explained in one sentence by the author. Finally, one sentence that does more than just define includes an appositive that is set off by hyphens for its definition.

    The Structure of a Definition Essay

    The definition essay opens with a general discussion of the term to be defined. You then state as your thesis your definition of the term.

    The rest of the essay should explain the rationale for your definition. Remember that a dictionary’s definition is limiting, and you should not rely strictly on the dictionary entry. Instead, consider the context in which you are using the word. Perhaps there are theories that will help you justify your definition. Context identifies the circumstances, conditions, or setting in which something exists or occurs. Often, words take on different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the ideal leader in a battlefield setting could likely be very different than a leader in an elementary school setting. If a context is missing from the essay, the essay may be too short or the main points could be confusing or misunderstood.

    The remainder of the essay should explain different aspects of the term’s definition. For example, if you were defining a good leader in an elementary classroom setting, you might define such a leader according to personality traits: patience, consistency, and flexibility. Each attribute would be explained in its own paragraph.


    For definition essays, try to think of concepts that you have a personal stake in. You are more likely to write a more engaging definition essay if you are writing about an idea that has personal value and importance.

    Writing at Work

    It is a good idea to occasionally assess your role in the workplace. You can do this through the process of definition. Identify your role at work by defining not only the routine tasks but also those gray areas where your responsibilities might overlap with those of others. Coming up with a clear definition of roles and responsibilities can add value to your résumé and even increase productivity in the workplace.

    Exercise 2

    On a separate sheet of paper, define each of the following items in your own terms. If you can, establish a context for your definition.

    1. Bravery
    2. Adulthood
    3. Consumer culture
    4. Work
    5. Art

    Writing a Definition Essay

    Choose a topic that will be complex enough to be discussed at length. Choosing a word or phrase of personal relevance often leads to a more interesting and engaging essay.

    After you have chosen your word or phrase, start your essay with an introduction that establishes the relevance of the term in the chosen specific context. Your thesis comes at the end of the introduction, and it should clearly state your definition of the term in the specific context. Establishing a functional context from the beginning will orient readers and minimize misunderstandings.

    The body paragraphs should each be dedicated to explaining a different facet of your definition. Make sure to use clear examples and strong details to illustrate your points. Your concluding paragraph should pull together all the different elements of your definition to ultimately reinforce your thesis.

    Figure: Image from Pixabay.

    Example Definition Essay

    Defining Good Students Means More Than Just Grades

    Many people define good students as those who receive the best grades. While it is true that good students often earn high grades, I contend that grades are just one aspect of how we define a good student. In fact, even poor students can earn high grades sometimes, so grades are not the best indicator of a student’s quality. Rather, a good student pursues scholarship, actively participates in class, and maintains a positive, professional relationship with instructors and peers.

    Good students have a passion for learning that drives them to fully understand class material rather than just worry about what grades they receive in the course. Good students are actively engaged in scholarship, which means they enjoy reading and learning about their subject matter not just because readings and assignments are required. Of course, good students will complete their homework and all assignments, and they may even continue to perform research and learn more on the subject after the course ends. In some cases, good students will pursue a subject that interests them but might not be one of their strongest academic areas, so they will not earn the highest grades. Pushing oneself to learn and try new things can be difficult, but good students will challenge themselves rather than remain at their educational comfort level for the sake of a high grade. The pursuit of scholarship and education rather than concern over grades is the hallmark of a good student.

    Class participation and behavior are another aspect of the definition of a good student. Simply attending class is not enough; good students arrive punctually because they understand that tardiness disrupts the class and disrespects the professors. They might occasionally arrive a few minutes early to ask the professor questions about class materials or mentally prepare for the day’s work. Good students consistently pay attention during class discussions and take notes in lectures rather than engage in off-task behaviors, such as checking their cell phones or daydreaming. Excellent class participation requires a balance between speaking and listening, so good students will share their views when appropriate but also respect their classmates’ views when they differ from their own. It is easy to mistake quantity of class discussion comments with quality, but good students know the difference and do not try to dominate the conversation. Sometimes class participation is counted toward a student’s grade, but even without such clear rewards, good students understand how to perform and excel among their peers in the classroom.

    Finally, good students maintain a positive and professional relationship with their professors. They respect their instructor’s authority in the classroom as well as the instructor’s privacy outside of the classroom. Prying into a professor’s personal life is inappropriate, but attending office hours to discuss course material is an appropriate, effective way for students to demonstrate their dedication and interest in learning. Good students go to their professor’s office during posted office hours or make an appointment if necessary. While instructors can be very busy, they are usually happy to offer guidance to students during office hours; after all, availability outside the classroom is a part of their job. Attending office hours can also help good students become memorable and stand out from the rest, particularly in lectures with hundreds enrolled. Maintaining positive, professional relationships with professors is especially important for those students who hope to attend graduate school and will need letters of recommendation in the future.

    Although good grades often accompany good students, grades are not the only way to indicate what it means to be a good student. The definition of a good student means demonstrating such traits as engaging with course material, participating in class, and creating a professional relationship with professors. While every professor will have different criteria for earning an A in their course, most would agree on these characteristics for defining good students.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page most recently updated on June 6, 2020.

    This page titled 9.3: Definition is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .