Definition Essay


To effectively communicate with your readers, both you and your readers need to establish shared definitions of terminology.  Definition essays are often one step in a larger process of persuasion, although they can stand on their own as well.

The act of defining something is more than simply going to a dictionary.  Instead, a definition argument seeks to determine which characteristics, ideas, or features a term includes as well as what it excludes for the purpose of your specific argument.

Example: For the purpose of this study, the term “trousers” refers only to those pants that are worn by men, including both pleated and flat fronted styles, and which are made of fabrics other than denim.  

Strategies for Definition

Define by Function: Explain what something does/ how something is done.

Example: A tutor is a person who guides students to master a specific skill that is needed for academic success.

Define by Structure: Describe how something is organized.

Example: A tutoring session begins with tutor and student establishing goals for the meeting, continues as the tutor explains the relevant content, and finishes with the student applying the new knowledge to his or her own work.

Define by Analysis: Compare the term to other members of its class by looking at similarities and differences.

Example: A tutor is a teacher who helps students one-on-one and who provides alternative explanations to concepts introduced in the classroom.


A definition essay explains what a word/a term means. Follow these steps to help develop your definition essay:

  1. Tell readers which term you are defining
  2. Present clear and basic information about the term
  3. Use facts and examples that readers can understand

Once you have a draft of your definition essay, ask a friendly critic to read it and tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Then read it over yourself with an eye for what can be improved.

Here are some questions to keep in mind when checking a definition essay:

PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE. For whom is this definition written? What is its purpose—To define something the reader probably doesn’t know much about? To demonstrate your knowledge to an already knowledgeable reader? How is the reader likely to define the subject? Does the definition confirm a standard definition, or challenge or expand it in some way? How?

THE BASIC DEFINITION. Does the definition identify the general class to which the subject of the essay belongs, plus the distinguishing characteristics that separate that subject from others in the same class? If not, how might the definition be improved?

THE POINT. What is the main point of the definition? Is it stated as a thesis, preferably in the introduction of the essay? How might the main point be made even clearer to the reader?

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS. How does the essay extend the basic definition? Does it introduce essential distinguishing characteristics of the subject? Are the characteristics sufficient to define the subject? Have any essential characteristics been left out? Which characteristics are most informative? Do any need to be sharpened or omitted? Does the definition say what the subject is not? Should it?

SYNONYMS AND ETYMOLOGIES. Are words with similar meanings or word histories used to help define key terms? If not, would either of these devices improve the definition?

OTHER METHODS. What other basic methods of development are used: description? comparison and contrast? Something else? If they are not used, how might such methods be incorporated into the definition?


Kaylan | 2016 

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