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How to Write a Definition Essay

A definition essay requires you to give a detailed explanation of a specific term. Hence the focus of the work is very precise, facilitating increase that is deeper than it is broad. This means you will have to go into a considerable amount of detail. You wouldn’t want to choose a word like, for example, “cement”, which is a very concrete term, whose meaning is very little disputed. This would not make for a very deep essay. Instead, you want to go for an abstract word which permits of a variety of meanings. Your overall objective is to ensure that by the end of the essay the reader has thorough understanding of the term in question.

Choose the right term to define

A key to success is to select a word which is rich with potential meaning, and that can therefore lend itself to multiple different interpretations. This will give you far more scope for discussion in the write-up. The more complex and contested the term is, the greater the levels of complexity you will be able to bring to bear.

Defining the Term

You will want to begin by fairly conventional avenues, looking up the dictionary definition of the term in question. Use a reputable definitional source (the Oxford English Dictionary is ideal). This will be the key point to which the rest of your argument is anchored. Beginning with a dictionary definition has all kinds of advantages. For one it gives you a systematic, technical overview of the term, providing its word class/classes, usage, date of origin, and so on. These structural and semantic details make for a good starting point when beginning and analysis. You will notice that a lot of academic papers begin with a dictionary definition of key terms, a clear signal that such is good practice.

Say, for instance, we were writing a definition essay on the word ideology. The OED gives several definitions of the term, including: “The science of ideas; that department of psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas”; and “ideal or abstract speculation; in a depreciatory sense, unpractical or visionary theorising the speculation”. We learn furthermore that the term originates in the French word “ideologie”, with roots in a particular philosophical movement in the empiricist tradition.

Already, from three simple sentences, we have been presented with a wealth of information on ideology, what it is and where it comes from. The most immediately apparent observation is that the concept lacks one clear, uncontested meaning. Rather, it seems to possess multiple and not necessarily complementary definitions. This is ideal for current purposes, because we immediately have the ingredients for a critical discussion – wherein more than one viewpoint is in evidence.

Structure

A good definition essay will necessarily begin with a thesis statement, a summary articulation of the essay’s point of view. Hence we would probably begin with a general working definition of the term in question-as per the dictionary definition offered above. We might then suggest reasons why this general definition is appropriate or, contrarily, inadequate. It depends upon the argument being presented.

We would then progress to analysis. This is the most important part of the essay, because it is where we will (hopefully) persuade the reader of our perspective. Thus we would present detailed exploration of the term; how and why its current definition came to hold sway – delineating the cause and effect relationships between history, usage and context. Here, demonstrating ample research is a must. Accordingly we want to present evidence from many different critical sources, proving that we have read widely on the topic.

Finally we want to provide a conclusion which pulls the various strands of your argument to gather in a concise and definitive manner. This should satisfy the expectations which were set up in the introduction. So, if our original thesis statement claimed the inadequacy of a given standard definition, by this point we would recap on how the argument presented corroborates this original position.

The Tools of Language

When writing a definition essay, we are dealing with a very precise kind of academic undertaking, one in which the structural properties of language are very much in the foreground (far more so than in any other kind of scholarly composition). Seeing as the essay rotates around definitional qualities, there is call for an extra degree of attention on linguistic qualities. Hence such considerations as semantics, syntactics, grammar, etymology, lexicography and so on are of particular interest.

The technical aspects of linguistics are very useful because they offer a structured, systematic and rigorous analytical approach to language. This is advantageous because arguing for a definition can at times be a highly subjective engagement. Words exist in a significatory flux and cannot really be pinned down in the same way as, for instance, numerical information can be (numbers do not change according to one’s subjective perspective). As a consequence, employing some of the formal methodologies of linguistics inserts an element of scientific solidity to your argument. Consider that it is far harder to dispute a well recorded etymological lineage, spanning several centuries, than it is to contest a brand-new argument fresh from the author’s pen.

Obviously, it is important to present your own original thought, to critically articulate a specific position. However, this position must exist within the frames of hard evidence, facts and figures; whatever supporting data there may be. By presenting more objective lines of argument, you are safely hedging the content which sways to the subjective side. The key is to find a balance between objective and subjective information. This is appropriate for a definition essay because words themselves can neither be understood from a wholly objective nor wholly subjective point of view. Both sides need to be taken into account.

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