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7.3: Definition Arguments

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    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?"

    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 on 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?

    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.


    Much of this section on definition argument is adapted from the Writing II unit on definition arguments through Lumen Learning, authored by Cathy Thwing and Eric Aldrich, provided by Pima Community College and shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.