WHAT IS DEFINITION?
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.
TYPES OF DEFINITION
- 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
differently. One insurance company may pay for a liver transplant
because it is viewed as a "recognized
while another will not cover it because it is defined as
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
- Evolving definitions change over time,
often reflecting changes in social values, community standards,
government policies, or scientific research. Child
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.
THE GOAL OF DEFINITION: TO INFORM OR PERSUADE
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
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?
SELECTING TOPICS FOR DEFINITION ESSAYS
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 . . .
|a good parent
||a desirable neighborhood
||right to privacy
||acting in self-defense
There are a number of methods of developing a topic for
a definition essay:
CHALLENGE A WIDELY ACCEPTED DEFINITION
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
LIST QUALITIES OR ATTRIBUTES OF A SUBJECT
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.
ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES OF MEANING
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
DISTINGUISH THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CLOSELY RELATED
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.
STRATEGIES FOR ESTABLISHING DEFINITIONS
Use synonyms -- supply similar, often simpler words
A casement can be called a window. A revetment
can be defined as an embankment .
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.
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,
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.
STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVING DEFINITION
AVOID CONFUSING DEFINITION WITH DESCRIPTION,
NARRATION OR EXAMPLE
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
* 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
detail the qualities of heroism so that readers will be
able to apply your definition to other people.
ADMIT LIMITATIONS OF YOUR DEFINITION
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
* Recognizing the limits of your definition demonstrates
BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR PAPER, REVIEW
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
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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Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark