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7.3: Definition Arguments

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    What is a definition argument?

    A research-based argument may have as its goal to describe the nature of something, whether it be an abstract concept like justice, a historical event, or an ongoing trend. Definition arguments like this are arguments because they seek to shape our vision of reality. We can think of them as answering the question "What is it?"

    A library of books, with the word "definition" in the center.
    Photo by Gerd Altmann on, licensed CC 0.

    Definition arguments may attempt to explain what is meant by a particular term. Take the following claim:

    Organic, in terms of food, means plants and animals raised without additives or artificial growing conditions.

    The argument here hinges upon understanding the definition of the word “organic.” In this case, organic is the subject of the argument. The claim goes on to base the argument on definition criteria. The claim states that two definition criteria of “organic” are “raised without additives” and “raised without artificial growing conditions.” "What do they mean by ‘artificial’?” If you find yourself questioning other terms used in the claim, that might mean your argument will need to dedicate a paragraph or more to defining those terms. An extended argument on organic food would need to explain in detail what distinguishes artificial growing conditions from natural ones. Can greenhouse-grown food be organic?  In such a situation, it may benefit the argument to offer the dictionary definition of “organic” as a way to confirm that writer and the readers’ assumptions are the same.  

    There are a number of online dictionaries that student authors can derive a definition from, but should the writer wish to ensure trust (ethos) with the audience, the source of the dictionary definition might matter.  The site offers this definition for “organic”:

    Organic: pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals” (“organic”).

    Readers who respect the history and legacy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) might consider its definition more credible. Considered the most definitive and complete dictionary available, the OED offers differentiated definitions of different uses of the word.  In the case of “organic,” we’d need to look at sub-definition 8c to find one that works for our purposes:

    Organic: of food: produced without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.

    A definition argument can put a more specific subject into a category based on criteria, as in the following:

    Though it omits hormones and antibiotics, organic ice cream remains unhealthy because it contains high levels of fat and sugar, while offering little nutritional value.

    Here we have a subject – organic ice cream – and a category – unhealthy. Presumably, unhealthy things often contain similar criteria – high levels of fat and sugar, low nutritional value, and industrial additives. Organic ice cream might not contain industrial additives, but, because it meets the other two criteria, it can still be considered unhealthy. A good way to test your thesis is to try out examples to see if the criteria work to distinguish things that fit the category from things that don't. Are other things we consider unhealthy full of sugar and/or fat, low in nutrition, and made with industrial additives? Yes. Fast food hamburgers are unhealthy because they contain high levels of fat, low nutritional value, and are full of chemical preservatives.

    Definition arguments will need to provide evidence for any generalizations they make about a subject. If they use a specific example, how can they show that the example is typical? They may also need to justify the choice of criteria for the definition. If we argue that the Vietnam War should not be considered a "World War" even though it involved two global superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, we will need to explain why a criterion like the number of deaths should be considered more important than the number or size of the countries involved.

    The benefits of definition

    Once we understand the value of definition for clarifying terms in an essay, we can start to appreciate the value of definition in shaping an argument, especially one centered around a contentious term. When controversy revolves around an issue, defining terms explicitly and precisely is even more critical.  In Section 4.2: Check If the Meaning Is Clear, we saw how mixing different meanings of one term can disguise a problem with the logic of an argument (if this is done intentionally, it is called equivocation). A definition argument can help avoid this kind of slippage, and it can clarify where disagreements lie.  Even if it doesn't resolve the disagreements, it may at least prevent misunderstandings.

    One example lies in the definition of "life" in the abortion debate.  Those on the pro-life side argue "life" is defined by the initial meeting of sperm and egg, and the subsequent division of cells. On the other hand, those on the pro-choice side often argue that "life" is determined by autonomy, by the fetus's ability to survive outside the womb, and this, generally, is possible at twenty-four weeks.  Prior to that, the fetus is fully dependent for survival upon the security of the woman's womb. 

    To take another example, let's say the government decides to allow health insurance providers to exclude coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions.  The question then arises, what precisely does constitute a preexisting condition?  Any diagnosis of cancer, including minor skin cancers?  Diabetes? Obesity? Hypertension?  Consider how many of our friends and family members have been diagnosed with any of these conditions. 

    Laws rely on definitions.  Many of us are familiar with the purpose of Title IX, which ensured that equal funding should be applied for both male and female athletic programs in schools.  However, with the recognition of transgender students and their rights, the U.S. Department of Education offered a statement of clarification to the language of Title IX: “explaining that it will enforce Title IX's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity” (“Title IX”).  Schools, students, and parents can now point to this language in debates about who is protected by Title IX status, and who can be included in the funding of gender-specific sports teams.  Legal definitions often depend upon qualifiers, as in the case of the gun debate.  Many on the pro-gun rights argument will not extend the definition of guns to include fully automatic guns; thus, they will often only agree with new gun restrictions that exclude AR 47s from such regulations. 

    Definitions involve emotional associations as well as descriptions of literal meaning. Public opinion can be swayed by casting a person involved in a very public event as "famous" or "infamous," a term that has decidedly negative connotations.  In the case of Trayvon Martin, a young black man who was shot by George Zimmerman, a white man, Martin was defined alternately as a "boy in a hoodie" or as a "potential thug."  And Zimmerman was defined as "a neighborhood watch leader" or "private citizen" by some, and a "vigilante" by others.  In each case, the label implies a definition of the person and his behavior, and this extends the impression built in the mind of the audience.

    Strategies for definition

    Referring to existing definitions 

    A dictionary definition can be helpful if the term under consideration is new or very unusual or uncommon, words which readers may be unfamiliar with, or whose definitions may have become obscured with modern use.  If an argument takes the position that reduced literacy rates in freshman college students makes them less apt to learn from a professor who leans toward sesquipedalian speech, yet, such speech is exactly the challenge these students need to pull them away from their social media feeds and engage them in the vigorous mental workout that academia provides, the author is more likely to earn the trust of the audience if a dictionary definition is provided for this uncommon and archaic word: words that are a foot and a half long (O.E.D.).

    Identifying emotional associations (connotations) 

    Emotional associations offer the various levels of meaning a word may have.  For example, love can have several variants, such as platonic love, romantic love, familial love, passionate love, self-love, and even more specific ones, such as spirituality, philanthropy, humanity, nationalism/patriotism, and agapé, and each carries its own emotional tone which informs the definition.  The essay "What is Poverty" offers multiple connotations of poverty through the numerous illustrations.

    Defining a term based on what it’s not (negation)

    Sometimes complex words are best explained by what they are not, specifically by contrasting the word to another term.  Needs are often confused with wants, but needs are anything necessary for survival.  For example, people often say "I need a vacation," when what they really mean is, "I want a vacation."  You may want coffee, but you need water.  You may want a new car, but a used one may suit your needs.  In an article about sexual predators, Andrew Vachss says that when he tells people about the individuals he prosecutes for abuse against children, people often say, "that's sick."  But he clarifies that there is a difference between "sick" and "evil."  A mother who hears voices in her head telling her to lock her baby in a closet is sick.  A man who sells a child to pornographers is evil.  "Sickness," he says, "is the absence of choice," while evil is the volition, the awareness of choice, and the intentional choice to commit a sinister act (Vachss).

    Creating an original definition (stipulation)

    This use of definition asks the reader to accept an alternate definition from the standard or commonly accepted one.  This is usually the best way to utilize definition in an essay, as it allows the author the freedom to put his or her own spin on a key term.  But the author must do it responsibly, providing supportive examples.  For example, many young people believe that true parental love is the willingness to do anything at all for a child.  However, real love isn't expressed by doormat behavior.  A parent who does his child's homework so the child receives all "A" grades isn't demonstrating love {note the use of negation here}.  Rather, true parental love is the willingness to apply fair rules and limits on behavior in order to raise a child who is a good worker, a good friend, and a good citizen.

    Elaborating on a definition (extended definition)

    There is no rule about how long a definition argument should be. When a simple one-line definition will not suffice, writers can develop a multi-paragraph, multi-page or multi-chapter definition argument.  For example, a newspaper article might explore at length what is meant by the phrase "cancel culture."  An entire book each might be needed to explain what is meant by the following terms: "critical race theory," "microagression," "gender identity," "fascism," or "intersectionality." When the concept under examination is complex, contentious, or weighted by historical examples and emotional connotations, an extended definition may be needed.

    Sample definition arguments

    This sample outline for an essay titled "When Colleges Talk about Diversity, Equity, and Antiracism, What Do They Mean?" shows the structure of one definition argument.

    The student essay "Defining Stereotypes" by Imanol Juarez can serve as another example. Annotations on this essay point out how Juarez uses several definition argument strategies.  

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    How are attitudes to gender changing in today’s society?  Come up with a definition argument you think has some validity about a current trend related to gender.  What kind of evidence could be gathered to support this claim?  How would you convince readers that this evidence is typical? You could choose one of the claims below or invent your own.

    • People today still associate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength.
    • Women are still more nurturing than men.
    • Teenagers today see gender as a spectrum.
    • Cisgender people still fear transgender people.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Construct a definition with criteria for one of the following terms, or another term of your choice related to gender.  Feel free to research the terms to get ideas. Possible terms: masculine, feminine, androgynous, macho, femme, butch, manly, womanly, machista, metrosexual, genderqueer, third gender, transgender.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Choose one of the following articles.  Which of the definition strategies listed in this section can you identify in the argument?  Can you think of any other strategies the author might have used?


    This page titled 7.3: Definition Arguments is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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