Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.9: Definition

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The Purpose of Definition in Writing

    The purpose of a definition essay may seem self-explanatory: to write an extended definition of a word or term. 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. Ultimately, a definition essay will share your special understanding about your chosen topic.

    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 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. Debating the definition of a word or term might have an impact on your relationship or your job, or it might simply be a way to understand an unfamiliar phrase in popular culture or a technical term in a new profession.

    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 dialogues. 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 defining is the major impetus of an essay, the writer casts him/herself as the expert, aiming at an audience who knows less, maybe much less, about the topic.

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

    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 about a time in your own life in which the definition of a word, or the lack of a definition, caused an argument. Your term could be something as simple as the category of an all-star in sports or how to define a good movie. Or it could be something with higher stakes and wider impact, such as a political argument. Explain how the conversation began, how the argument hinged on the definition of the word, and how the incident was finally resolved.

    Collaboration: Please share with a classmate and compare your responses.

    The Structure of a Definition Essay

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

    The rest of the essay should explain the rationale for your definition. Remember that a dictionary’s definition is limiting, so you should not rely strictly on the dictionary entry. Indeed, unless you are specifically addressing an element of the dictionary definition (perhaps to dispute or expand it), it is best to avoid quoting the dictionary in your paper. Instead, consider the context in which you are using the word. 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 from 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 vague and confusing.

    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. Be specific and detailed: flesh out each paragraph with examples and connections to the larger context.

    You define according to principles of definition, but you are the author of the definition. As you consider how to develop your essay, it might be helpful to consider the parts of a formal definition:

    Parts of a definition:

    • Formal re-definition
    • History
    • Context
    • Sounds
    • Similar things
    • Function
    • Meaning

    Example: Here is an example of a formal definition for “candle:”

    The candle is a kind of reminder that not only lets me think of my friend when I see it, but also lights my room when I think of her. Every time I clean my room, or get dressed, or pass by, or go to bed, or wake up in the morning, I see the candle and think of my friend. At times, I just light it for a few minutes, and I am reminded of her presence. I am bombarded with meeting reminders, “to do” lists, alarms, sticky notes, deadlines, requests, and on and on. My candle is the only reminder I have that slows me down and lets me think of her. The silent burning of the candle reminds me of her quiet demeanor, the long silences that followed our fights, and the suddenness with which her life was snuffed out. Like an old photograph, or stories told by friends, or places we met, or the smell of barberry and cinnamon, my candle reminds me of the time we were together. The candle only burns when I light it once a year – on the day I lost her. To me, the candle signifies a life lived quietly, resolutely, but with a burning passion for living in the moment.

    You may define any object or place this way. When you have a definition constructed, you may add it to the other elements in your personal writing. When you finish ALL the elements, you may then arrange elements for greatest effect.

    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. Violence
    5. Art

    Exercise 3

    Choose a label that you would give yourself (such as good friend, daughter, brother, student, etc). For this label, consider both the denotation of the word and your connotation of it. Then, write paragraph that defines this word using at least one other rhetorical technique, such as description, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, or narration.

    Contributors and Attributions  

    Adapted from Successful College Composition (Crowther et al.). Sourced from LibreTexts, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

    Adapted from Let's Get Writing (Browning, DeVries, Boylan, Kurtz and Burton). Sourced from LibreTexts, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .


    4.9: Definition is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?