- Compose a clear, succinct definition of a nuanced term or concept.
- Illustrate a core definition by providing examples that represent the range of possible meanings of the term or concept.
- Understand and apply the concepts of denotation and connotation to increase clarity of a term or concept’s definition.
What Is Definition?
Definition is the rhetorical mode that we use when our thesis includes a term that we define for our audience. This type of essay is not just a dictionary entry or an encyclopedia article. A definition essay includes a point that we are making about the term; in other words, it has a point of view.
It is important to keep our audience in mind as we compose the definition essay. Our essay must leave the reader with a clear understanding of the term and should not be filled with technical language or jargon. When selecting evidence for the essay, we should ask ourselves, “Is this going to help my reader understand what this term means?” We’ll only include the evidence if the answer is definitely yes.
We use definition in our writing and conversations all the time! Here are some examples:
Joe is too bossy.
The word bossy is a subjective term, meaning that different people may have different ideas of what it means to be bossy. In order to make your point, define bossy and provide examples of his bossy attitude (poor listening skills, shouting at people, making decisions without asking a committee—these are what define “bossy” in our argument).
Low-carb diets are dangerous.
While most people have heard the term low-carb, many may not actually know what it means. Define what constitutes “low-carb,” and define what you mean by “dangerous.” Cite studies showing harmful effects or how substances affect the body.
Definition essays may also incorporate other rhetorical modes.
- In this chapter, we will connect definition with illustration/example, which means to use specific examples as supporting evidence for your point. For instance, when writing about the dangers of low-carb diets, you might offer examples of fad diets that are low-carb.
- Definition essays may also use descriptive narrative writing. What if, when making the point that low-carb diets are dangerous, you included the personal experience of a dieter who experienced negative health consequences?
- Definition essays may also incorporate compare and contrast. In order to clarify what diets are actually low-carb, we could compare a low-carb diet such as the Paleo Diet to a diet that is not low-carb like intermittent fasting.
Denotation and Connotation
When writing a definition essay, it’s important to know that there are two elements to any good definition: denotation and connotation.
- Denotation: offering a literal and explicit definition of a word (to denote means “to indicate”)
- Connotation: positive or negative associations that make up an extended definition of a word
Examples of denotation and connotation
Both denotation and connotation work together to really flesh out a word. In a definition essay, denotation is critical because our reader needs concrete information to further their understanding. However, connotation is important, too. It is one way we create a point of view in our essay and develop our thesis.
Let’s discuss some examples.
For the first example, think about the feelings you experience when you hear the word “Monday.” Jot down some initial thoughts. What springs to mind?
For most of us, there is a negative connotation to the word Monday. The alarm clock is more irritating on a Monday morning, or we might “have a case of the Mondays.” But this negative connotation has nothing to do with the literal definition, or denotation, of the word “Monday.” The denotation is just “the second day of the week” or “the first day of the work week.”
Try another example:
Think of the word “prejudice” for a moment. What comes to mind? Think about how we use the word in a conversation.
Now, google this: “define prejudice.” This dictionary definition is the denotation of the word. That definition may be literally correct, but what is it missing? Does this definition provide the feeling behind the word “prejudice”?
One final example:
Here’s a definition of “democracy” written by E.B. White during World War II. (We may know White from his most famous book, “Charlotte’s Web,” but he was more than a children’s author; he was also a respected essayist. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, and people respected his opinions. This brief piece appeared in The New Yorker’s Notes and Comments section on July 3, 1943.) White writes:
We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.
Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.
White’s definition of “democracy” certainly captures the feelings—patriotism, morality, decency—but where is the literal definition? Does the word “government” appear anywhere? How about “constitution”? Or “representative”? Here, White is providing all connotation but no denotation. This definition served its purpose, but it wouldn’t help a high school student pass a Civics test.
So as we can see, denotation and connotation must work together. Writing about “prejudice,” for instance, as a neutral word with no negativity attached to it would be strange. In a definition essay, you will need facts and concrete information for denotation and also elements such as narrative, examples, and description to create the appropriate connotation.
How to Write a Definition Essay
A definition essay can be deceivingly difficult to write. This type of paper requires you to write a personal yet academic definition of one specific word. The definition must be thorough and lengthy. It is essential that you choose a word that will give you plenty to write about, and there are a few standard tactics you can use to elaborate on the term. Some definition essays will require some research, while others will rely on personal experience; this chapter will provide guidance for both options. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when writing a definition essay.
Part 1 of 3: Choosing the Right Word
1: Choose an abstract word with a complex meaning.
A simple word that refers to a concrete word will not give you much to write about, but a complex word that refers to an abstract concept provides more material to explore.
- Typically, nouns that refer to a person, place, or thing are too simple for a definition essay. Nouns that refer to an idea work better, however, as do most adjectives.
- For example, the word “house” is fairly simple, and an essay written around it may be dull. By switching to something slightly more abstract like “home,” however, you can play around with the definition more. A “home” is a concept, and there are many elements involved in the creation of a “home.” In comparison, a “house” is merely a structure.
2: Make sure that the word is disputable.
Aside from being complex, the word should also refer to something that can mean different things to different people.
- A definition essay is somewhat subjective by nature since it requires you to analyze and define a word from your own perspective. If the answer you come up with after analyzing a word is the same answer anyone else would come up with, your essay may appear to lack depth.
3: Choose a word you have some familiarity with.
Dictionary definitions can only tell you so much. Since you need to elaborate on the word you choose to define, you will need to have your own base of knowledge or experience with the concept you choose.
- For instance, if you have never heard the term “pedantic,” your understanding of the word will be limited. You can introduce yourself to the word for your essay, but without previous understanding of the concept, you will not know if the definition you describe is truly fitting.
4: Read the dictionary definition.
While you will not be relying completely on the dictionary definition for your essay, familiarizing yourself with the official definition will allow you to compare your own understanding of the concept with the simplest, most academic explanation of it.
- As an example, one definition of “friend” is “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” Your own ideas or beliefs about what a “friend” really is likely include much more information, but this basic definition can present you with a good starting point in forming your own.
5: Research the word’s origins.
Look up your chosen word in the Oxford English Dictionary or in another etymology dictionary.
- These sources can tell you the history behind a word, which can provide further insight into a general definition as well as information about how a word came to mean what it means today.
Part 2 of 3: Potential Elements of an Effective Definition
1: Write an analysis.
Separate a word into various parts. Analyze and define each part in its own paragraph.
- You can separate “return” into “re-” and “turn.” The word “friendship” can be separated into “friend” and “ship.”
- In order to analyze each portion of a word, you will still need to use additional defining tactics like negation and classification.
- Note that this tactic only works for words that contain multiple parts. The word “love,” for instance, cannot be broken down any further. If defining “platonic love,” though, you could define both “platonic” and “love” separately within your essay.
2: Classify the term.
Specify what classes and parts of speech a word belongs to according to a standard dictionary definition.
- While this information is very basic and dry, it can provide helpful context about the way that a given word is used.
3: Compare an unfamiliar term to something familiar.
An unfamiliar or uncommon concept can be explained using concepts that are more accessible to the average person.
- Many people have never heard of the term “confrere,” for instance. One basic definition is “a fellow member of a profession, fraternity, etc.” As such, you could compare “confrere” with “colleague,” which is a similar yet more familiar concept.
4: Provide traditional details about the term.
Explain any physical characteristics or traditional thoughts used to describe your term of choice.
- The term “home” is often visualized physically as a house or apartment. In more abstract terms, “home” is traditionally thought to be a warm, cozy, and safe environment. You can include all of these features in a definition essay on “home.”
5: Use examples to illustrate the meaning.
People often relate to stories and vivid images, so a fitting story or image that relates to the term can be used in clarifying an abstract, formless concept.
- In a definition essay about “kindness,” for example, you could write about an act of kindness you recently witnessed. Someone who mows the lawn of an elderly neighbor is a valid example, just as someone who gave you an encouraging word when you were feeling down might be.
6: Use negation to explain what the term does not mean.
If a term is often misused or misunderstood, mentioning what it is not is an effective way to bring the concept into focus.
- A common example would be the term “courage.” The term is often associated with a lack of fear, but many will argue that “courage” is more accurately described as acting in spite of fear.
7: Provide background information.
This is when your research about the etymology of a word will come in handy. Explain where the term originated and how it came to mean what it currently means.
Part 3 of 3: Definition Essay Structure
1: Introduce the standard definition.
You need to clearly state what your word is along with its traditional or dictionary definition in your introductory paragraph.
- By opening with the dictionary definition of your term, you create context and a basic level of knowledge about the word. This will allow you to introduce and elaborate on your own definition.
- This is especially significant when the traditional definition of your term varies from your own definition in notable ways.
2: Define the term in your own words in your thesis.
Your actual thesis statement should define the term in your own words.
- Keep the definition in your thesis brief and basic. You will elaborate on it more in the body of your paper.
- Avoid using passive phrases involving the word “is” when defining your term. The phrases “is where” and “is when” are especially clunky.
- Do not repeat part of the defined term in your definition.
3: Separate different parts of the definition into separate paragraphs.
Each tactic or method used to define your term should be explored in a separate paragraph.
- Note that you do not need to use all the possible methods of defining a term in your essay. You should use a variety of different methods in order to create a full, well-rounded picture of the term, but some tactics will work great with some terms but not with others.
4: Conclude with a summary of your main points.
Briefly summarize your main points around the start of your concluding paragraph.
- This summary does not need to be elaborate. Usually, looking at the topic sentence of each body paragraph is a good way to form a simple list of your main points.
- You can also draw the essay to a close by referring to phrases or images evoked in your introduction.
5: Mention how the definition has affected you, if desired.
If the term you define plays a part in your own life and experiences, your final concluding remarks are a good place to briefly mention the role it plays.
- Relate your experience with the term to the definition you created for it in your thesis. Avoid sharing experiences that relate to the term but contradict everything you wrote in your essay.
Professional Writing Example
The Downside of Cohabiting before Marriage by Meg Jay
At 32, one of my clients (I’ll call her Jennifer) had a lavish wine-country wedding. By then, Jennifer and her boyfriend had lived together for more than four years. The event was attended by the couple’s friends, families, and two dogs.
When Jennifer started therapy with me less than a year later, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married,” she sobbed. Most disheartening to Jennifer was that she’d tried to do everything right. “My parents got married young so, of course, they got divorced. We lived together! How did this happen?”
Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.
In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.
But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.
Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.
As Jennifer and I worked to answer her question, “How did this happen?” we talked about how she and her boyfriend went from dating to cohabiting. Her response was consistent with studies reporting that most couples say it “just happened.”
“We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”
She was talking about what researchers call “sliding, not deciding.” Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.
WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.
Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.
Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money, and effort it requires to make a change.
Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs. Living together can be fun and economical, and the setup costs are subtly woven in. After years of living among roommates’ junky old stuff, couples happily split the rent on a nice one-bedroom apartment. They share wireless and pets and enjoy shopping for new furniture together. Later, these setup and switching costs have an impact on how likely they are to leave.
Jennifer said she never really felt that her boyfriend was committed to her. “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife,” she said. “We had all this furniture. We had our dogs and all the same friends. It just made it really, really difficult to break up. Then it was like we got married because we were living together once we got into our 30s.”
I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.
The unfavorable connection between cohabitation and divorce does seem to be lessening, however, according to a report released last month by the Department of Health and Human Services. More good news is that a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage.
This shared and serious view of cohabitation may go a long way toward further attenuating the cohabitation effect because the most recent research suggests that serial cohabitators, couples with differing levels of commitment and those who use cohabitation as a test are most at risk for poor relationship quality and eventual relationship dissolution.
Cohabitation is here to stay, and there are things young adults can do to protect their relationships from the cohabitation effect. It’s important to discuss each person’s motivation and commitment level beforehand and, even better, to view cohabitation as an intentional step toward, rather than a convenient test for, marriage or partnership.
It also makes sense to anticipate and regularly evaluate constraints that may keep you from leaving.
I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.
- What is the main term that is being defined in the essay?
- The essay begins with the specific example about “Jennifer.” Does this example provide denotation or connotation? Explain.
- Do you feel the writer is creating a positive or negative connotation to the term? To that end, how does the essay define “the cohabitation effect”?
- According to the essay, what does “sliding, not deciding” mean? Describe an example of “sliding, not deciding” from your own life.
- After reading the essay, do you feel that you have a clear grasp of the meaning of the term? Explain.
Student Writing Example
Extended Definition Essay
When one thinks of the most important quality in a friend or a family member, trust immediately comes to mind. It can be defined as reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, and surety of a person or thing. But what does it really mean? Trust, in simple terms, is faith in another person, despite a lack of an assured outcome.
One characteristic that makes trust unique is its fragility. To gain the trust of a parent or friend, one must continuously prove one’s honesty and reliability. To gain the complete trust of someone can take years, but can be lost in a single moment. A perfect example of the delicate nature of trust can be found in marriage. Two spouses must constantly support and be honest with each other to gain real trust. However, this bond can be easily broken if one of the spouses is caught cheating with someone else. Trust in another person can make one feel secure and loved, while broken trust can lead to the feeling of anger and vulnerability.
One very important question arises when examining trust: If one knows the outcome of something before it happens, is there any trust involved? For example, a friend asks to borrow $10,000 so that he can invest it in a company, and receive more money in return. If one already knew that they would get the money back at the time of the loan, there is no trust involved. However, if the investment seems very risky, and the only thing that made one approve is the friend’s promise of success, then genuine trust takes place. The person that is doing the trusting should have faith in the person making the promise, not in the event itself. Real trust is not tested in times of certainty; rather, genuine trust occurs when we are not certain of the outcome.
Trust can be found in simple things, like a dog relying on his master to feed him, or it can be found in more complex relationships such as two police officers looking out for each other. Most friendships are based on trust as well. Friends will not let other friends make bad decisions and will expect that others will do the same for them. Trust can be proven to others by doing the right thing even when one is not asked. If other people know that one can handle responsibility and can manage to do the right thing, even when they are not asked, they will not falter in providing friendship and support.
Trust has always been a part of everyone’s life whether or not they are aware of it. From the time we are born, we know that our mother will care for us and show us love and affection. In our teenage years we hope that our friends and family alike will support our decisions and correct us if we are wrong. To our college years, we expect that our teachers will accurately grade everything we do. We even expect our spouse to support and love us throughout our adult years. We rely on others to take care of our every need when we are old. Even on the day that we die, we know that our friends and family will be at our funeral to bid us farewell into the afterlife. We hope that there is a heaven and a hell, one of which will be our final destination. But throughout our lives, trust follows us everywhere we go and these trusting relationships that we develop will help lead and guide us. But when it all comes down to it, who can we trust?
- What is the term that is being defined in the essay?
- Where in the essay do we find an example of denotation?
- After reading the essay, would you say there is a positive or negative connotation to the term?
- Is this a personal or researched definition essay? Was it the right choice for this topic? Explain.
- After reading the essay, do you feel that you have a clear grasp of the meaning of the term? Explain.
When was the last time that you learned a new word? Was it a concept you learned in the classroom, an unfamiliar term you heard in the news, or a word someone used in conversation? How did you learn the meaning? Use a prewriting technique to plan an essay in which you teach a friend the definition of this new word.
- Definition writing teaches the audience the meaning of an unfamiliar term.
- Definition writing is not “dictionary writing.”
- A basic definition and an extended definition are both necessary components.
- Denotation refers to the literal definition of a word.
- Connotation refers to the positive or negative perception of a word.
- Definition essays may incorporate other rhetorical modes such as compare/contrast and illustration/example.
Once you have read this chapter and written a definition essay, think about your expectations when you first saw the title of the chapter. What turned out to be different from your expectations? Which of your expectations turned out to be correct?
Additional Chapter Sources
“The Meaning of Democracy” by E.B. White appeared in the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker. All rights reserved.
“The Downside of Marriage” by Meg Jay appeared in the April 14, 2012, issue of The New York Times. All rights reserved.
The rhetorical mode that we use when our thesis includes a term that we define for our audience
Rhetorical mode in which the writer uses specific examples as supporting evidence for their point
The literal and explicit definition of a word
The feelings or attitudes that make up the extended definition of a word