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Humanities Libertexts

11.1: Why Write a Definition Essay?

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    When humans interact with one another, they depend on having a universal understanding of vocabulary; sometimes, people create new words to convey a complex emotion or to establish a new use of an old word. Slang terms and metaphors for everyday activities and objects have surfaced generation after generation, often confounding or just irritating our “elders” like “cool” from the 1950s or “awesome” from the 1980s. How many different ways can someone ask for “coffee?” Jargon is created within some professions, for example, in education, medical, or computer science fields. For this reason, new words are added every year to the Standard English Dictionary and to apps such as Urban Dictionary. At times it becomes necessary for a writer to clarify his or her terms within the context of an essay, and sometimes, a writer chooses to challenge a particular interpretation or application of a word which requires an entire essay devoted to the charge.

    Consider some of these examples:

    What is an “educated” person? Is “educated” the same as being “intelligent” or having a college degree? Does being “educated” entail more than that? A definition essay on this topic would argue for all of the distinguishing traits that could define being “educated.”

    In election years, politicians, even within their own political parties, tend to be defined as “liberal” vs. “conservative” or “left-wing” vs. “right-wing.” But what do those terms really mean? Even within established political paradigms, political rivals and pundits on different news programs will disagree or describe these positions differently. A writer could write a definition essay to assert a particular way of viewing these complicated labels.

    What is “leadership” in our world today? Does “leadership” imply that one must hold a political office or be the CEO of a corporation? Who else in our society qualifies as a leader? What is generally accepted as the defining or distinguishing characteristics of a leader?

    Love, marriage, family—these concepts are not only abstract, but they are concepts that have been used to argue changes to interpretations of laws and civil rights. These are good examples of how definitions that were once generally accepted and unchallenged sometimes need clarified under a new lens.

    Understanding Definition

    Definition is important when writers need to clarify complex or abstract topics which often is necessary as part of an essay or even as an entire essay arguing for a shared understanding of a word or concept or sometimes to establish a new or uncommon understanding of a word.

    Definition can be clarified with more advanced explorations of words and concepts that require names, categories, and a presentation of distinguishing traits.

    • Synonyms—usually this approach is used for clarification as part of an essay and clarifies the intended definition by using words that are similar.
    • Essential Definitions—names the word by defining it, applies a broad category, identifies limitations or traits that prevents the interpretation from being applied incorrectly
    • Extended Definitions—this type of definition requires a multi-paragraph, essay length development that usually involves other modes of development to support an assertion of an argued meaning.

    Logical fallacies to avoid

    • Circular definition—avoid using the word itself in the assertion of the definition.
    • Overly broad definition—be careful to limit the definition so that it can’t be applied to unintended contexts.
    • Overly narrow definition—also be careful to not be too limiting so that your definition does not restrict the applications from ideas that should be included.
    • Omission of main categories—similar to being overly broad.
    • Prejudiced thinking/labeling—be sensitive to how some audiences could be stereotyped or labeled negatively without clear justification.
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