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  Home > InfoWrite > Modes of Exposition > Definition

InfoTrac College Edition



The word definition probably reminds you of looking up a word in a dictionary. But definition involves far more than explaining the meaning of a word. Definitions can be complex and controversial. Many legal battles are actually disputes over definition. Lawyers argue before judges and juries whether or not a person' s actions meet the legal definition of a crime. Someone suing for slander or copyright infringement must prove that the other party' s actions matches the legal definitions.

Contracts, warranties, leases, and government reports often provide definitions of key terms to prevent misunderstanding.


  • Standard definitions are universal and rarely subject to change. The words mammal, virus, piston, turbine, and tornado have specific meanings accepted by experts around the world.

  • Regulatory definitions are officially designated terms and are subject to change. The IRS, the NFL, NASA, zoning boards, welfare agencies, school districts, labor Unions, and Congress mandate the meanings of specific words or concepts to guide policies. These definitions may vary from state to state or company to company. General Motors and Ford Motor Company may define "work place injury" differently. One insurance company may pay for a liver transplant because it is viewed as a "recognized medical procedure" while another will not cover it because it is defined as "experimental". Regulatory definitions may change overnight. A court ruling may declare a law unconstitutional, forcing legislators to rewrite a statute. A company, organization, or committee may vote to change a definition. A college, for instance, could change its definition of a full time student from a student taking twelve credits to one taking nine credits.

  • Evolving definitions change over time, often reflecting changes in social values, community standards, government policies, or scientific research. Child abuse now describes behavior such as corporal punishment that was once accepted as routine discipline by parents and teachers. Mental retardation reflects a more compassionate and understanding view of people once defined as feeble minded.

  • Qualifying definitions limit the meanings of abstract subjects. Concepts such as slander, obesity, disability, sexual harassment resist easy explanation. When does a witty remark become slander? How much weight does one have to gain before becoming obese? How severe does a back injury have to be before an employee is deemed disabled? When does a manager or co-worker's comments cross the line from being simply crude or boorish to being sexual harassment?

  • Cultural definitions are shaped by the history, values, experiences and attitudes of a national, ethnic, or religious group. Behavior that is acceptable in one nation may be defined as a crime in another country. One religion may view gambling as a pastime while another may condemn it as a sin. Paying money to a public official for services rendered may be customary tribute in one nation and an illegal bribe in another.

  • Personal definitions express an individual's viewpoints or attitudes. You may have your own attitudes about what constitutes pornography or prejudice.


    Definitions serve two basic purposes:

    To establish meaning and provide common understanding. Before doctors, engineers, lawyers, consumers, or teachers can intelligently discuss an issue, they must have a shared understanding of the terms they are using.

    To motivate readers to accept a particular point of view of an issue or problem. Should drug addiction be defined as a crime or a disease? Writers often persuade people to alter their perceptions by providing alternative definitions.

    A writer concerned about the social and economic impact of graffiti might argue that his readers cease to view spray painting as a prank by defining it as vandalism. Some people may accept the use of police profiling, while
    others define the practice as racist.

    In writing a definition paper, establish a clear goal. Are you informing or persuading?


    If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider one of the following items. Select a topic, then explore its possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies.

    Provide a definition for . . .
    hate crimes sexual harassment success
    police brutality free speech good daycare
    stalking addiction child abuse
    a good parent urban sprawl responsibility
    being wealthy a desirable neighborhood poverty
    being female adolescence masculinity
    machismo intelligence victimless crimes
    espionage loyalty euthanasia
    a hero right to privacy civil disobedience
    flirting racism acting in self-defense
    date rape wisdom middle age
    gossip tragedy a slum


    There are a number of methods of developing a topic for a definition essay:


    Think of social problems or issues you have discussed with friends or have seen debated in the media. You may find yourself disagreeing with conventional wisdom. Perhaps you don't like the prevailing definition of sexual harassment, gangs, alcoholism, or prejudice.

  • First supply the prevailing or customary definition. Make sure you state it in neutral and objective terms. Don't label the popular view as being wrong or stupid.

  • Then provide your personal definition and supply sufficient support to persuade readers to accept your point of view.


    If you are going to define a good parent or football coach, you might begin by listing those qualities that distinguish them from ordinary parents or coaches. After drawing up the list, delete minor or redundant comments and place the remainder in order of importance.


    Complex or abstract topics resist definition. You can establish meaning for a highly controversial topic like pornography by explaining what is not pornographic in your view. By placing limits and working toward the center, you can establish meaning and give readers a clearer understanding of your definition.

    * Provide numerous examples to illustrate your definition. You may even decide to create a spectrum presenting clear-cut black and white examples of what is and is not pornographic, then provide examples you might consider gray, illustrations subject to interpretation.

    * Admitting that your definition is not iron-clad can convince readers that you have given the subject a great deal of thought and that your definition reflects more than a personal bias.


    What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom? When does a politician become a statesman ?

    * To avoid writing a comparison paper, concentrate on one item, but distinguish it from the second.

    * Provide examples to illustrate the exclusiveness of the term. Demonstrate, for instance, that an illiterate person could show wisdom while a highly educated person could make an unwise decision.


    Use synonyms -- supply similar, often simpler words

    A casement can be called a window. A revetment can be defined as an embankment .

    Provide descriptions
    Tell readers what the subject looks, smells, sounds, tastes like.
    A gnu can be defined as an African antelope with a large ox-like head with curved horns, a short mane, and a long tail.

    Give examples
    The definition of a sound investment can be illustrated by listing examples, government bonds, Blue Chip stocks, insured savings accounts.

    Draw comparison to more familiar ideas, situations, or facts
    A doctor might explain a complex neurological condition by comparing it to a short circuit or a damaged electrical cord. A nuclear reactor could be compared to a tea kettle. The problems of a satellite drifting off course could be likened to a driver skidding on ice.

    * These comparison are often graphic and give readers something they can quickly grasp, but they can grossly oversimplify a complex issue. Qualify your remarks and explain the limits of your illustration.



    Perhaps the most common error students make when assigned a definition paper is confusing definition with other modes. Remember the goal of a definition paper is to establish meaning, not describe someone, tell a story, or give examples. Definition is often supported with narrative and descriptive details, but its main job is to define.

    * Make sure that your thesis clearly states a definition. It should establish or limit the meaning of a general subject. You should define heroism , not simply relate tales of heroic behavior or describe a heroic person. Your paper should detail the qualities of heroism so that readers will be able to apply your definition to other people.

    Many concepts cannot be fully defined in a 500 word essay. In your opening or closing, you may list possible exceptions to your definition, detailing instances where it might not apply.

    * Recognizing the limits of your definition demonstrates critical thinking.



    1 Does your thesis define or only describe the subject?

    2 Is your purpose, to inform or persuade, clearly stated?

    3 Do you provide examples, illustrations, comparisons your readers will understand?

    4 Do you rely too much on a single example or description that could be misleading?

    5 Are supporting details clearly linked to the thesis?

    6 Do you avoid defining a word with the same word, such as inflation inflates the prices of goods and services?

    7 Are there existing definitions you can use for reference or  contrast?

    8 Do you provide readers with a brief thesis statement they can highlight and remember?

    9 READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Do any sections need expansion? Are there unclear examples or narratives that should be replaced? Does your paper leave readers will a clear definition of your subject or does it just list ideas and observations?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.