62 5.7 Definition and Evaluation Arguments

Allison Murray, Anna Mills, Cathy Thwing, and Eric Aldrich


What is a definition argument?

A definition argument may have as its goal to describe the nature of something, whether it be an abstract concept like justice, a historical event, or an ongoing trend. Definition arguments like this are, in fact, arguments because they seek to shape our vision of reality. We can think of them as answering the question “What is it?”


Definition arguments may attempt to explain what is meant by a particular term. Consider the following claim:


Organic, in terms of food, means plants and animals raised without additives or artificial growing conditions.


The argument here hinges upon understanding the definition of the word “organic.” In this case, organic is the subject of the argument. The claim goes on to base the argument on definition criteria. The claim states that two definition criteria of “organic” are “raised without additives” and “raised without artificial growing conditions.” “What do they mean by ‘artificial’?” If you find yourself questioning other terms used in the claim, that might mean your argument will need to dedicate a paragraph or more to defining those terms. An extended argument on organic food would need to explain in detail what distinguishes artificial growing conditions from natural ones. Can greenhouse-grown food be organic? In such a situation, it may benefit the argument to offer the dictionary definition of “organic” as a way to confirm that writer and the readers’ assumptions are the same.


There are a number of online dictionaries that student authors can derive a definition from, but should the writer wish to ensure trust (ethos) with the audience, the source of the dictionary definition might matter. The dictionary.com site offers this definition for “organic”:


Organic: pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals” (“organic”).


Readers who respect the history and legacy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) might consider its definition more credible. Considered the most definitive and complete dictionary available, the OED offers differentiated definitions of different uses of the word. In the case of “organic,” we’d need to look at sub-definition 8c to find one that works for our purposes:


Organic: of food: produced without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.


A definition argument can put a more specific subject into a category based on criteria, as in the following:


Though it omits hormones and antibiotics, organic ice cream remains unhealthy because it contains high levels of fat and sugar, while offering little nutritional value.


Here we have a subject – organic ice cream – and a category – unhealthy. Presumably, unhealthy things often contain similar criteria – high levels of fat and sugar, low nutritional value, and industrial additives. Organic ice cream might not contain industrial additives, but, because it meets the other two criteria, it can still be considered unhealthy. A good way to test your thesis is to try out examples to see if the criteria work to distinguish things that fit the category from things that don’t. Are other things we consider unhealthy full of sugar and/or fat, low in nutrition, and made with industrial additives? Yes. Fast food hamburgers are unhealthy because they contain high levels of fat, low nutritional value, and are full of chemical preservatives.


Definition arguments will need to provide evidence for any generalizations they make about a subject. If they use a specific example, how can they show that the example is typical? They may also need to justify the choice of criteria for the definition. If we argue that the Vietnam War should not be considered a “World War” even though it involved two global superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, we will need to explain why a criterion like the number of deaths should be considered more important than the number or size of the countries involved.

The benefits of definition

Once we understand the value of definition for clarifying terms in an essay, we can start to appreciate the value of definition in shaping an argument, especially one centered around a contentious term. When controversy revolves around an issue, defining terms explicitly and precisely is even more critical. A definition argument can help to clarify where disagreements lie. Even if it doesn’t resolve the disagreements, it may at least prevent misunderstandings.


To take an example, let’s say the government decides to allow health insurance providers to exclude coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions. The question then arises, what precisely does constitute a preexisting condition? Any diagnosis of cancer, including minor skin cancers? Diabetes? Obesity? Hypertension? Consider how many of our friends and family members have been diagnosed with any of these conditions.


Laws rely on definitions. Many of us are familiar with the purpose of Title IX, which ensured that equal funding should be applied for both male and female athletic programs in schools. However, with the recognition of transgender students and their rights, the U.S. Department of Education offered a statement of clarification to the language of Title IX: “explaining that it will enforce Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity” (“Title IX”). Schools, students, and parents can now point to this language in debates about who is protected by Title IX status, and who can be included in the funding of gender-specific sports teams.


Definitions involve emotional associations as well as descriptions of literal meaning. Public opinion can be swayed by casting a person involved in a very public event as “famous” or “infamous,” a term that has decidedly negative connotations. In the case of Trayvon Martin, a young black man who was shot by George Zimmerman, a white man, Martin was defined alternately as a “boy in a hoodie” or as a “potential thug.” And Zimmerman was defined as “a neighborhood watch leader” or “private citizen” by some, and a “vigilante” by others. In each case, the label implies a definition of the person and his behavior, and this extends the impression built in the mind of the audience.

Strategies for definition

Referring to existing definitions: A dictionary definition can be helpful if the term under consideration is new or very unusual or uncommon, words which readers may be unfamiliar with, or whose definitions may have become obscured with modern use. If an argument takes the position that reduced literacy rates in freshman college students makes them less apt to learn from a professor who leans toward sesquipedalian speech, yet, such speech is exactly the challenge these students need to pull them away from their social media feeds and engage them in the vigorous mental workout that academia provides, the author is more likely to earn the trust of the audience if a dictionary definition is provided for this uncommon and archaic word: words that are a foot and a half long (O.E.D.).

Identifying emotional associations (connotations): Emotional associations offer the various levels of meaning a word may have. For example, love can have several variants, such as platonic love, romantic love, familial love, passionate love, self-love, and even more specific ones, such as spirituality, philanthropy, humanity, nationalism/patriotism, and agapé, and each carries its own emotional tone which informs the definition.

Defining a term based on what it’s not (negation): Sometimes complex words are best explained by what they are not, specifically by contrasting the word to another term. Needs are often confused with wants, but needs are anything necessary for survival. For example, people often say “I need a vacation,” when what they really mean is, “I want a vacation.” You may want coffee, but you need water. You may want a new car, but a used one may suit your needs. In an article about sexual predators, Andrew Vachss says that when he tells people about the individuals he prosecutes for abuse against children, people often say, “that’s sick.” But he clarifies that there is a difference between “sick” and “evil.” A mother who hears voices in her head telling her to lock her baby in a closet is sick. A man who sells a child to pornographers is evil. “Sickness,” he says, “is the absence of choice,” while evil is the volition, the awareness of choice, and the intentional choice to commit a sinister act (Vachss).

Creating an original definition (stipulation): This use of definition asks the reader to accept an alternate definition from the standard or commonly accepted one. This is usually the best way to utilize definition in an essay, as it allows the author the freedom to put his or her own spin on a key term. But the author must do it responsibly, providing supportive examples. For example, many young people believe that true parental love is the willingness to do anything at all for a child. However, real love isn’t expressed by doormat behavior. A parent who does his child’s homework so the child receives all “A” grades isn’t demonstrating love {note the use of negation here}. Rather, true parental love is the willingness to apply fair rules and limits on behavior in order to raise a child who is a good worker, a good friend, and a good citizen.

Elaborating on a definition (extended definition): There is no rule about how long a definition argument should be. When a simple one-line definition will not suffice, writers can develop a multi-paragraph, multi-page or multi-chapter definition argument. For example, a newspaper article might explore at length what is meant by the phrase “cancel culture.” An entire book each might be needed to explain what is meant by the following terms: “critical race theory,” “microaggression,” “gender identity,” “fascism,” or “intersectionality.” When the concept under examination is complex, contentious, or weighted by historical examples and emotional connotations, an extended definition may be needed.

Sample definition arguments

This sample outline for an essay titled “When Colleges Talk about Diversity, Equity, and Antiracism, What Do They Mean?” shows the structure of one definition argument.

Practice Exercises


How are attitudes to gender changing in today’s society? Come up with a definition argument you think has some validity about a current trend related to gender. What kind of evidence could be gathered to support this claim? How would you convince readers that this evidence is typical? You could choose one of the claims below or invent your own.

People today still associate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength.

Women are still more nurturing than men.

Teenagers today see gender as a spectrum.

Cisgender people still fear transgender people.


Construct a definition with criteria for one of the following terms, or another term of your choice related to gender. Feel free to research the terms to get ideas. Possible terms: masculine, feminine, androgynous, macho, femme, butch, manly, womanly, machista, metrosexual, genderqueer, third gender, transgender.


What is an evaluation argument?

In college, professional life, politics, and everyday life, we constantly must assess how things measure up. We are faced with questions like the following:

Does our employer treat us fairly?

Does our local cafe deserve five stars or four?

Is the “Free City” program that makes City College of San Francisco tuition free for residents a success?

Is a particular hillside a good location for a wind farm?

Does the president deserve their current approval rating?


To answer each of these questions and convince others that our answer is valid, we would need to make an evaluation argument. Most commonly, evaluation arguments rate their subject on a scale from positive to negative. Evaluation arguments make a claim about the quality of something. We can think of them as answering the question, “How good or bad is it?”


Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels under the Pexels License.


Evaluation arguments usually need to define and justify the criteria they use to make the evaluation. These criteria may consist of moral standards, aesthetic standards, or tests of successful functioning. Depending on how controversial the criteria are, the argument may need to defend and explain why they have been chosen. How can we support our choice of criteria? We may cite precedent or the authoritative sources in the field, or we may discuss the merit of the criteria in themselves by arguing for the good results they lead to and aligning them with values we believe our audience will share.


Once we have convinced readers that the criteria for quality are valid, we will need to articulate our judgment about the extent to which the subject meets or doesn’t meet those criteria.


Finally, the argument will need to provide evidence of the way in which the subject meets or does not meet the criteria.

Ranking criteria

In cases where there are multiple valid criteria, the writer may need to rank them in order of importance and justify this ranking. For example, an editorial supporting Alyesha Jenkins for mayor would need to explain what the city should be looking for in a mayor at the moment. The editorial might argue that the top priority should be finding someone who has a workable plan to address the homelessness crisis. It might then go on to identify as secondary priority finding someone who has been an effective leader of a large organization. Finally, it might argue that finding a candidate who will focus on ending police brutality in the city should be the third priority. Given these criteria, the argument might praise Alyesha Jenkins’ concrete, popular plan on homelessness and describe her background as a successful city supervisor and head of a law firm. It might note that her record on police brutality is limited, but we still judge her to be a strong candidate.

Types of criteria

We can classify evaluative arguments by the kind of criteria they use. They may focus on aesthetics, the appearance or appeal of something (a movie, a work of art, or a building). Or they may focus on practical concerns about how something functions or moral judgements based on values.


Aesthetic Criteria: What makes a great film can be an academic question or an everyday debate among friends going to the movies. Film critics and Film Studies classes try to identify clear aesthetic criteria for award-worthy movies. Film blogger Tyler Schirado, who writes for the San Diego Film festival, details criteria including acting quality, dialogue, pacing, plot coherence, cinematography, production design, and special effects. Each of those criteria could in turn include sub-criteria. For example, the criteria for the quality of the special effects might include both how innovative and how spectacular they are.

Operational Criteria: Sometimes the criteria that matter are very practical. We use operational criteria when we are looking for certain concrete results. What does the subject we are evaluating do? If we want to evaluate a new car’s safety features, we will examine to see how it performs under challenging conditions. When the FDA evaluates and tests a new vaccine, they follow a set of procedures to test how the vaccine affects first cells, then animal bodies, and finally human bodies. The FDA considers the results of all these procedures to help it decide whether to approve the vaccine or not. And if the consumer has confidence in the FDA’s standards for data collection, they can use the criteria about the vaccine’s past record of immune protection and side effects to help them decide whether or not to get vaccinated.

Moral Criteria: An evaluation argument based on moral criteria will claim that something is right or wrong. It will need to appeal to shared values or make a case for a particular value that serves as criteria. Some values are nearly universal, such as honesty, reasonableness, and fairness. However, even values that seem universal may be defined differently by different groups. We each grow up in an environment that instills a particular set of family or cultural or religious values. These help to shape our own sense of morality, or personal values and codes that we chose to live by.


As an example, the Motion Pictures Academy includes some moral criteria as well as aesthetic criteria when it selects winners for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actors. Responding to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy of Motion Pictures decided to incorporate the value of inclusiveness into their criteria. In order to emphasize “the inclusion of people in underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and those with cognitive or physical disabilities,” they developed a new set of criteria for nominations for Best Picture. The criteria state that starting in 2024, “To be eligible for best picture, a film must meet at least two standards across four categories: ‘Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,’ ‘Creative Leadership and Project Team,’ ‘Industry Access and Opportunities’ and ‘Audience Development,’ (Rottenberg). Each of these new criteria responds to the demands for inclusivity and equity, and is evidence that criteria can and should evolve as social morals evolve.

Comparative Evaluation

Many times we will need to evaluate the worth of one subject in relation to another in order to judge which is better. Of course, we will need to decide on the basis for comparison, or the criteria to be used, and make that basis clear. Then we will need to evaluate each subject according to the criteria. In comparisons, ranking the criteria will often be important because one subject may do better on one criterion and worse on another. We’ll need to know which criterion is more important in order to decide which comes out ahead overall.


Sample evaluation arguments

To get a sense of what research-based evaluation arguments look like in college classes, see this sample evaluation essay, “Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States.” Annotations on the essay point out how the author uses evaluation argument strategies.

Sample evaluation essay “Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States” in PDF version with margin notes

Practice Exercises

Reflect on the following questions to construct your own evaluation argument.

What makes a person a good role model? Choose your top three criteria.

How would you rank those criteria in order of importance?

Choose two prominent public figures from history, pop culture or politics, dead or alive, who would be interesting to compare as role models.

Evaluate each person according to the three criteria you identified.

Which figure comes out as the better role model?

If you ranked the criteria differently, would the other one come out ahead?

What is most controversial in your evaluation? Is it the choice of criteria, the ranking of the criteria, or the idea that your figure fits certain criteria?


Parts of the above are written by Allison Murray and Anna Mills.

Parts are adapted from the Writing II unit on definition arguments through Lumen Learning, authored by Cathy Thwing and Eric Aldrich, provided by Pima Community College and shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.


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Sandbox: Interactive OER for Dual Enrollment Copyright © by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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