Assignment: Definition Essay

Length: 2 pages, double-spaced

In our academic lives, we are exposed to new words and terms all the time: We might learn new terms—or more complicated applications of words we thought we already know—as we study history, biology, literature, or other disciplines. This happens in our everyday lives as well; we hear new words from different cultures, different technologies, and different generations. Often, when we want to know a word or a term’s definition, we think of looking in the dictionary, of going to an acknowledged, credible source to find out what a word means. We don’t necessarily think of definitions as debatable, as arguments, and many words, in many situations, are not. When you hear someone tell a teenager or young adult to act like an “adult,” you probably don’t think of that person acting like a 14-year-old. You know what the word “adult” means! But you also probably know that in a different context that word that you know so well may be contested. In criminal law, for example, a 14-year-old might be tried as an “adult” in a court if he or she has committed certain crimes. And 200 years ago, a 14-year-old was very much an adult in terms of being able to work or even marry. And in some parts of the world, that is still the case.

So once we think about it, we realize that dictionaries aren’t the only sources of definitions. Often how a word is defined is very debatable; often, indeed, it’s the foundation of an argument. For example, before a court can decide to try a 14-year-old as an adult, there must be agreement on what being an adult means in this particular legal term (that is, in terms of behavior, knowing right from wrong, etc.). How a court defines “adult” will likely be very different from the way a biologist defines “adult”, which will vary still from the way a psychologist defines it.

In college and the professional world, you will often be expected to memorize established definitions of terms. But you will often need to be able to understand and enter the debate over definitions that are contested. In this expository essay, you will define an abstract term that may be contested.

Assignment Instructions

For this paper, you will choose a debatable term that is of interest to you. You will define the term using whatever evidence you determine to be the most compelling and uniquely describe the term you are defining. Make sure that the definition is your own and that it is not simply a different meaning of a word with multiple interpretations.


Your broader purpose here is to enter into a more expansive conversation about your term, but you must still shape—and make clear to your audience—your more specific purpose. Your goal in this paper is to reflect on and articulate the meaning of a word or term that has some resonance for you. For your reader, the paper should offer a clear sense of what you think the term means, how your thoughts connect to what others think of the term, why and in what context the definition matters.

How you arrange your essay is your choice, but you will want to consider where to place your support. How will you weave together a definition of an abstract term with an attention-grabbing narrative, examples, negation, and other tactics of definition that best explain the concept?

How to Proceed

Once you have decided on your audience, your term, and the support for defining that term, how do you go about actually composing a definition? There are many tactics of definition, or definition questions, and we will consider and practice them in class. You will not use all of them in this paper (that would be more like a list than a well-structured essay!), but you should choose the ones that work best for this term and audience.

What you should not do in this essay is define something the way we already know it; in other words, try not to tell us that a computer is a machine for accessing the World Wide Web and Word processing. We don’t need to read that compromise is finding an in-between in a conflict. Aim for something invigorating and fresh. Make it exigent.


Many of the authors we read in class attempt to define complex terms. These writers employed many of the strategies that you will be using to write your paper, so please use these stories as examples of how to successfully write a paper within the definition genre.