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4.10: Definition Essays

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    Writing a Definition Essay

    Choose a topic that will be complex enough to be discussed at length. Be sure that the term is abstract, and that it is or refers to something that can mean different things to different people. Also, be sure that you choose a word that you have some familiarity with. Since you need to elaborate on the word you choose to define, you will need to have your own base of knowledge or experience with the concept you choose. If you try to define something that is beyond the scope of your paper or your own experience, the task will become overwhelming and get mired down in details or abstractions.

    After you have chosen your word or phrase, start your essay with an introduction that establishes the relevancy 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 context from the beginning will orient readers and minimize misunderstandings; for example, if you are defining the word childhood, you will need to explain if you are discussing the developmental stages of childhood, the history and evolution of the notion of childhood, or the cultural attitudes towards childhood in a certain country.

    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. A definition can be developed in a number of ways. A definition of a business management concept such as Total Quality Management (TQM), for instance, could begin with a history of its inception in Japanese management systems, its migration across the Pacific, its implementation and transformation in American systems, and its predicted demise. It could also (or instead) include examples of the kind of labor conflict that TQM is supposed to eliminate or alleviate. Or it could describe TQM as a process, the steps involved in its implementation, or involve an analysis of its principles and its place in management theory. Contrasts to other management theories might be appropriate, demonstrating what TQM is not as well as what it is. We could even think of it as a cause and effect situation in which we describe how TQM responds to certain needs in the workplace. Negation also works well, as you can define your topic by what it is not or does not have. A definition essay is not limited to any one method of development and it may, in fact, employ more than one method at once. Implicit in all of these techniques, and therefore essential in your essay, is an analysis of this topic you have chosen. By developing and explaining your own opinion of what the topic you have chosen means, you are in a way analyzing the topic.

    Your concluding paragraph should pull together all the different elements of your definition to ultimately reinforce your thesis and explain why your definition is a compelling interpretation of your chosen word or term. It draws a conclusion based on the overall breakdown of the information offered throughout the body of the essay.

    Some Additional Tips About Definition

    • 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....”
    • 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.

    Sample Definition Essays

    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 professors have different criteria for earning an A in their courses, most will agree on these characteristics for defining good students.

    Sample Student Essay

    In the following essay, the writer chose to define justice in a specific context: the prison system and mass incarceration. Notice how he begins the essay with a more general definition of justice and then moves into a detailed analysis of his chosen topic, using facts, statistics, and quotations to support his argument.

    Darius Porter

    English 1101

    Dr. Jones

    September 24, 2015

    Mass Incarceration: The Real Trends of the United States Justice System

    The favorite part of the national anthem by most people is “the land of the free,” but how much freedom do you really have in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Record levels of incarceration have proven that the U.S justice system is a failed system in need of serious reform. The justice system was designed to punish individuals equally for their crimes and then rehabilitate them back into society. However, today’s perception of the justice system is that it promotes mass incarceration which results in a billion dollar prison industry, unjust mandatory sentencing, and racial and low income targeting. Government officials’ desire for higher conviction rates have had a negative impact on their sense of morality, which has altered their idea of justice.

    The definition of justice will differ from person to person, but no matter who is giving the definition, the word “equality” should not be left out. Justice is the golden rule – treat others how you would like to be treated. Justice is blind; it does not see age, race, or social classification. Justice should punish criminals, teach them a lesson, then rehabilitate them into society. It is the balance of fairness and righteousness, a scale that should not tip to the left or the right, a scale that has been broken by the United States of America.

    America’s justice system has lost its deeply rooted values, which are, “to keep communities safe, to respect and restore victims, and to return offenders who leave prison to be self-sufficient and law-abiding” (DeRoche). The shifts behind the justice system began in the 1980’s when the U.S. was battling against a drug war. The methods the government used to overcome the drug war were higher conviction rates, mandatory minimum sentences, and mass incarceration. Although these were once solutions to a major problem, today the implementation of these policies has caused negative effects on both society and the justice system.

    For a country with trillions of dollars of debt, does a billion dollar prison industry sound productive, especially when both crime rates and incarceration rates are increasing? “The United States incarcerates 2.3 million individuals – more people, both per capita and in absolute terms, than any other nation in the world including Russia, China and Iran,” (Shapiro) with a ratio of ,“1 in 100 residents [in prison] and… 1 in 31 citizens on parole or probation” (DeRoche). How do the aforementioned statistics relate to a billion prison dollar industry? Well, “government employment in criminal justice has grown by 1 million employees since 1980” (Alexander qtd. in DeRoche). That’s an extensive increase in capital, funds that will be deducted from hard earned tax payer dollars. Another costly fact is, “prosecutors and police budgets are rewarded for convictions, and they are not held to account for their contribution to spending in prisons” (DeRoche). So far, our price tag is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but this only amounts to a minor chunk of the billions that are poured into the prison industry yearly. Spending billions on a prison industry is an economic failure, “but mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group: the private prison industry. As current incarceration levels harm the nation as a whole, for-profit prisons obtain taxpayer dollars in ever greater amounts,” (Shapiro). A huge amount of the billions that go into the prison industry goes into private prisons that the government pays to house inmates. While our local, state, and federal governments are in deep fiscal deficits, according to Shapiro, private prison executives are enjoying yearly bonuses of over 3 million dollars each. Shapiro cites the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest private prison company, which reports that: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices...” As, we, citizens are concerned over prison spending cost and mass incarceration rates, private prison companies get to have their cake and eat it too.

    United States mandatory sentencing laws are one of the leading contributors to the billion dollar prison industry and private prison executives even admit it, “[private prison companies] profits depend on locking up more people,” (Shapiro); on the other hand, mandatory sentencing laws pose a prejudice upon the accused. To give someone a minimum sentence before they are found guilty of a crime is cruel, bias, and unfair. Essentially, it is the crime that you are guilty of that sentences you, not the judge. These minimum sentences do not take into account your character, criminal history, or your reason for committing the crime. It is a problem when first time offenders and repeat offenders receive the same sentence for a crime. Nevertheless, prisons are filled with first time, non-violent, offenders subject to unjust minimum sentences; which is another reason the United States is in need of serious criminal justice reform.

    A drastic effect on society that results from mass incarceration and mandatory sentencing laws is the targeting of people based race and/or income level. As stated by DeRoche, “Our minority population is a reliably easier target for getting the numbers by which society measures law enforcement today,” so when police departments are pressured about high crime rates they pursue marijuana and petty crime convictions from minorities. In a further detailed study by Palta “Arrest rates for marijuana possession are four times as high for black Americans as for whites. [Although] black men spend an average of 20 percent longer behind bars in federal prisons than their white peers [even though they committed] the same crimes.” Although these are interesting facts, the more shocking facts estimate that, “1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during their lifetime, compared with 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men” (Palta). While racial targeting is a major contributor of the statistics mentioned, income levels are also a component.

    The U.S. Constitution states that all citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. The reality though, is that the accused lower income citizen will experience the justice system differently than the accused higher income citizen. A wealthier citizen will have more money to pay for a better, more experienced, lawyer which is important because your lawyer is the person who is most important in defending you against the charges brought against you. In many instances, a person of a lower income bracket cannot afford a lawyer, so they are forced to continue the judicial process with a public defender. A public defender is an appointed lawyer who is provided by, and works for, the courts. It is widely argued that public defenders are on the side of the prosecutors. Regardless of the fact, “Statistically, trolling for low-level law breakers has distracted the public from demanding justice where it is most needed,” (DeRoche). Your income will determine your experience in the justice system. People of a lower social classification may not get the protection under the law, which is needed so that the corruption will not continue.

    When the crime rate and the incarceration rate are rising simultaneously, it is apparent that the United States criminal justice system is not very effective. In conclusion, DeRoche states, “Beyond the dollars spent, our failing criminal justice system contributes to our cultural decline.” A true justice system is one that lowers the crime rate by punishing criminals while promoting equality, fairness, and rehabilitation skills. Robbing individuals of their freedom through record levels of mass incarceration results in a billion dollar prison industry, mandatory sentencing, and racial and low income targeting. Higher convictions rates will not solve the problem, only criminal justice reform will.

    In “Pride” (, published by Outside Online, New Yorker writer Ian Frazier uses a mix of rhetorical devices to define the concept of pride.

    In "I Want a Wife", Judy Brady provides a humorous look at responsibilities and relationships.

    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 .

    This page titled 4.10: Definition Essays is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.