Essays and Arguments, Section 4: Definitions (2) (2023)


Essays and Arguments, Section 4: Definitions (2) (1)

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Essaysand Arguments,SectionFour

[Thistext, which has been prepared byIanJohnstonof MalaspinaUniversity-College, Nanaimo, BC(now Vancouver Island University),is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permissionand without charge, released May 2000; revised and reformatted March 2008]

[Tableof Contents for Essays and Arguments]


4.1The Importance of Certain Key Terms in the Argument

Oneimportant part of setting up and conducting an effective argument is often theestablishment of clear, precise, and effective definitions for key terms in theargument, so that everyone agrees from the start what exactly is underdiscussion. And the analysis of an argument requires you to pay the closestattention to any definitions, simply because a devious or inadequate ormisleading definition can produce something that looks plausible but which is,in fact, problematic because the initial definition is self-serving orambiguous.

Let’stake an obvious example. Suppose I wish to construct an argument that we must dosomething at once to alleviate the growing poverty in Canadian society. Anessential prerequisite here will be defining just what I mean bypoverty.That is, I shall have to make sure that everyone following my argument sharesthe same definition. If I simply let each reader bring to bear her ownunderstanding of that term, then I am inviting confusion. And the plausibilityof my argument is going to depend, in large part, upon the adequacy of thatdefinition. If, for example, I set a higher income level than normallyrecognized as the defining line, then I can easily show poverty is much worsethan others have claimed; if I set a low income level, then I can show povertyis decreasing or is not so bad as other writers state.

4.2Organizing Definitions

Wheredoes one find definitions which satisfy the criteria mentioned above? Well, themost obviously places are those texts recognized as authoritative in aparticular area, that is, dictionaries or specialized handbooks. An importantpart of study in an academic discipline (e.g., Criminology, Sociology, History,Psychology, Chemistry, English, and so on) is learning where one finds the mostcurrent and acceptable definitions. In many cases, you can find an acceptabledefinition in such a book.

However,sometimes you are going to have to adapt such definitions or else come up withone of your own. When you are defining something, there are some importantprinciples to keep in mind:

1.Fitthe descriptive detail in the definition to the knowledge of the people who willbe attending to your argument and to the requirements of your argument. Thedefinition of, say, AIDS for a general readership will be different from thedefinition for a group of doctors (the latter will be much more technical).

2.Makesure in the definition you focus on what somethingis,not just on what its effects are or what it is used for (that may come later).For instance, a definition of, say,foetalalcohol syndromewhich saysonly that it is “a condition which affects many pregnant mothers and which canhave very harmful effects on the children, including alcoholism, brain damage,behavioural problems, and stunted growth” is not immediately very useful sinceit has not said exactly what the condition is.

(Video) How To Write A Definition Essay [2019]

3.Extendthe definition so that it exactly covers what you want the reader to understand.This may mean that you will want to expand on the dictionary definition (mostdefinitions from standard language dictionaries are too short to serve bythemselves). Make sure definitions are full and complete; do not rush themunduly. And do not assume that just because the term is quite common thateveryone knows just what it means (e.g.,alcoholism).If you are using the term in a very specific sense, then let the reader knowwhat that is. The amount of detail you include in a definition should cover whatis essential for the reader to know, in order to follow the argument. By thesame token, do not overload the definition, providing too much detail or usingfar too technical a language for those who will be reading the essay.

4.Itis often a good idea to supplement a definition, where appropriate, with what itdoes not include, so as to prevent any confusion in the reader’s mind. Forexample,

By poverty here I mean an urban family living on a combined income from all sources of 32,000 dollars a year or less. This definition does not include families living outside of urban centres or those which have some means of supporting themselves outside the cash economy (e.g., by hunting, fishing, or farming). The term also excludes all single people and couples without children at home.

5.Normally,you should not invent a definition for anything which already has a clear andaccepted definition in place (but see the paragraphs below on disputeddefinitions). This is particularly important when there is a specific definitionin place which deals with a term in the context you are discussing it. Forinstance, if you are writing an essay about the law on, say, murder, then youwill have to bring into play the legal definition of the term (rather than usingone of your own).

6.Definitionsshould normally be presented in a disinterested way. That is, you should notload them up with words which indicate to the reader your judgment about whatyou are defining (even if the purpose of the essay is to evaluate some aspect ofthat term). Keep the definition neutral. Do not, for example, write somethinglike the following:

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a really unfair invention of the Mulroney government. It arbitrarily imposed a grievous burden on all hard-working Canadians by making them pay a 7 percent surcharge on every article and on every service they purchased, from books and toys to meals in restaurants and real estate. While a few things were exempt, almost every item on a consumer’s slender budget was subject to this nasty provision to send more money to that sink-hole bureaucracy in Ottawa.

Youmay want the reader to share this very unfavourable view of this tax, butdon’t impose that view on the definition. It makes you sound hopelessly biasedfrom the start. Instead give an impartial definition of the GST and let youremotional attitude to it emerge later.

Finally,once you establish a definition, do not change its meaning in the middle of theargument (another very common and misleading fallacy). So make sure, when youestablish the definition initially it states exactly what you mean for thepurposes of the entire argument, and then stick to that meaning of the term.


Sometimesyou will have to deal with adisputeddefinition, that is, a term for which there are different and conflictingdefinitions. In such a case, it is often useful to review the existingdefinitions and then to stipulate the definition you are going to use in theargument.

Forinstance, suppose you are constructing an argument about how we should deal withthe problem of aboriginal rights for Native Canadians. You will have to defineprecisely what you mean by the term Native Canadian. Does this term include allpeople who call themselves Native Canadians? Is the term restricted to thosewhom the governing bands or the federal government or the census designate asNative Canadians? Is a Native Canadian anyone who is married to or descendedfrom a Native Canadian? Is there a legal definition of the term? And so on. Insuch a case, it is a good idea to indicate that the term is disputatious andbriefly to review some of the options. Then for the purpose of your argument youstipulate the particular definition which you are going to use.

Manyof the most contentious arguments today hinge on disputed definitions, forexample, the abortion debate (where the definition ofafoetusis central), thepolitics of Israel (where the definition of the termJewiscentral), pornography (where the definition of whatpornographymeansis central) and some feminist arguments (where defining the similarity ordifference between men and women is central), and so on. Such arguments areoften particularly difficult to resolve, because the disputants cannot agree onhow to set up the argument.

Anumber of arguments do not require definition of key terms because they do notinvolve any which the general reader cannot readily understand. Such is the caseusually with essays on literary subjects, especially those which focus oncharacter analysis or plot structure. Even here, however, if the argumentinvolves as a central point some specialized term, like, say,Romanticirony, the writer is well advised to define the term clearly beforeproceeding, especially if there is some chance that a few readers will notunderstand or will misunderstand it.

4.3Self-Serving Definitions

Whenyou construct an argument and especially when you analyze someone else’sargument, be very careful about definitions which are intentionally twisted tosupport a particular argument, a very common tactic in misleading arguments.Often, the entire logic of an argument depends upon a particular definition, soif you accept it too casually, then you may find it difficult later to avoidconclusions which do not sound plausible but which do seem to arise logicallyfrom the points made.

Inanalyzing an argument, in fact, you should immediately slow down when the writeris defining something and ask yourself whether or not this definition isadequate. Getting readers quickly to accept a loaded definition is one of thecommonest methods of sounding reasonable and yet playing a devious logicaltrick.

Hereis an example of a two-paragraph argument, which begins with a definition andmoves from that to a conclusion.

What is science? Well, we all agree that science is an activity in which we observe and measure a natural occurrence. We carry out this process repeatedly until we have a sense of how this process might work mechanically. On the basis of this sense, we construct a theory and a mechanical model, and this theory will enable us then to predict various things about the process under observation. Once this theory is in place, we proceed to test it by further observation and experiment involving the process we are explaining. At the heart of the scientific endeavour is this constant return to detailed observation of the natural process under investigation. Unless the process is observed directly, the study of it is not scientific.

Nowevolution is obviously something we cannot observe. By the evolutionists’ ownadmission, the time spans involve millions of years—far beyond the capacity ofany single human being or of any collection of human beings to investigateaccording to the very processes which science itself requires. Thus, whileevolution is clearly a theory, an idea, it cannot be scientific. It cannot betested because it cannot be observed. Thus evolution, no matter what itssupporters might claim, has no scientific validity.

(Video) How to write an argument essay

Thisargument, you will notice, is deductive in structure. It begins by setting up adefinition of science which, it claims, is shared by everyone. Then, in thesecond paragraph the writer applies this definition to the theory of evolution,in order to conclude that evolution does not fit the definition and is,therefore, not scientific.

Isthis argument persuasive? Well, if we accept the definition of science in thefirst paragraph, then the conclusion given at the end of the second paragraphwould seem inescapable. So the key question here is this: How adequate is thatdefinition of science?

4.5Exercise 4: Definitions

Providefull definitions for two of the following. Each definition should be at least aslong as the examples provided after the list:

basketball (the game)
a shovel
the Second World War
blank verse
aerobic exercise
Romantic irony
foetal alcohol syndrome
a sonnet

Example1: A full-time student in theuniversity program at Malaspina University-College is any student, male orfemale, in any year of any undergraduate program concurrently taking three ormore 3-credit courses at Malaspina University-College (that is, the student musthave a course load of 9 or more approved credits at this institution). Thisdefinition does not include any courses which do not have university credit(e.g., continuing education offerings or preparatory courses) or which areoffered by other institutions (e.g. the University of Victoria or the OpenUniversity), nor does it include any courses which a student may be taking on anaudit basis or from which a student may have recently withdrawn. (112 words)

Example2: Before discussing the notionof a right to die, we need to clarify precisely what the termlegalrightmeans. In commonlanguage, the termrighttendsoften to mean something good, something people ought to have (e.g., a right to agood home, a right to a meaningful job, and so on). In law, however, the termhas a much more specific meaning. It refers to something to which people arelegally entitled. Thus, a legal right also confers a legal obligation on someoneor some institution to make sure the right is conferred. For instance, inCanada, children of a certain age have a right to a free public education. Thisright confers on society the obligation to provide that education, and societycannot refuse without breaking the law. Hence, when we use the termrightto diein a legal sense, weare describing something to which a citizen is legally entitled, and we areinsisting that someone in society has an obligation to provide the serviceswhich will confer that right on anyone who wants it. (181 words)

Noticethat these definitions are extensive, making use of examples to clarifyprecisely a point and indicating in places what the definition does not include.Such definitions are much more helpful than a one or two sentence quotation froma dictionary.

4.6Descriptive and Narrative Definitions

Theneed to define the terms central to an argument may also sometimes include arequirement to provide a

descriptiveor narrative definition, often of some length, of a term which refers to aparticular place, institution, law, person, or event. In other words, you mayneed, as a preliminary step in an argument, to provide the reader an accuratedescriptive or narrative definition.

Forexample, if you are writing an argument about logging in Clayoquot Sound orabout the Gustafson Lake conflict, it is important that the readers fullyunderstand what you mean by the Clayoquot Sound or the Gustafson Lake conflict.So you will need to provide a descriptive definition of the key term. In thefirst case, this will normally require a brief geographical description(locating the Clayoquot and describing it sufficiently so that the reader has anunderstanding of the area you are talking about); in the second case, thisdescriptive definition will require a short narrative definition in which youbriefly give the location, dates, main events, and conclusion of the GustafsonLake conflict. Since you cannot assume that all readers will have accurateinformation about these matters, you will need to define them.

Insuch definitions you should keep your tone as neutral as possible (the argumenthas not yet started). All you are doing at this point is making sure that everyreader clearly understands and shares a common factual understanding ofsomething essential to the argument. Do not, by introducing an evaluative tone(i.e., taking sides), suggest to the reader that this definition is being set upto prove a contested issue. All you are doing is setting the stage for theargument you are about to start.

Thepoint is (and we will be returning to this later) that, if there is a chancethat your readers may have a ambiguous or uncertain sense of something centralto what you are presenting, then you must clear that up (usually very early inthe presentation), so that they all share a common meaning. In deciding what youneed to define in this way, keep in mind the knowledge of the audience you areaddressing. Your expectations from a general readership (e.g., your classmates)will be quite different from your expectations from a very specialized audience(e.g., the Williams Lake city council or Greenpeace).

4.7Extended Definitions

Definitionscan sometimes be quite extensive, when you need to make sure that the readershave a full grasp of all the necessary details of a particular topic. So in somecases you may need to take more than one paragraph to include all the necessaryfacts you want readers to know. While such extended definitions are not reallycommon in a short essay, they are often a key part of the introduction to alonger research paper.

Suppose,for instance, that you are writing a long argument (in the form of a researchpaper) about the dangers of the new cloning technology. Before going into theargument, you want people to have a very clear understanding of the factualbackground to this topic. In other words, you have to define a few issues. Youmight want to include a number of paragraphs defining and describing the issueof cloning in various ways, as follows:

Paragraph1: Introductory Paragraph,setting up the subject, focus, and thesis of the research paper (an argumentthat we need to impose some strict regulations on research into cloningtechniques).

Paragraph2: Formal definition of cloning(what does the term mean, what are key elements in the process). From this thereader should derive an accurate sense of what cloning is and what you mean bythe term and what you do not mean by the term in the rest of the essay.

(Video) How to Write an Essay Faster #shorts

Paragraph3: Descriptive definition ofthe development of cloning, in the form of a narrative: When did it start? Whatwere the key experiments in the history of the process? Where are we now? Fromthis the reader should derive a precise idea of the developing history of theprocess.

Paragraph4: Descriptive-definition ofthe present laws on cloning: What is the legal status of the process right now?From this the reader should understand exactly what the present law does or doesnot say about the procedures.Thissection might include a brief reference to the laws regarding cloning in othercountries.

Paragraph5: Start of the main part ofthe argument.

Thefirst four paragraphs, you will notice, are not arguing anything (this is animportant point). After the introduction, which sets up the argument, the nextthree paragraphs are providing the key factual background upon which yourargument will draw once you launch it. Their purpose is to give all readers ashared sense of the necessary facts, without which they may become confused oncethe argument begins.

Extendeddefinitions are often very important in setting out the full factual context foran argument about the historical significance of an event or a discovery.If,for example, your paper is arguing that Galileo’s experiments marked adecisive shift in the way science was conducted, then you will need to informthe reader (briefly but usefully) of the state of affairs in scientific thinkingwhen Galileo began his work.

Theprocess of setting up an extended definition in this way is essential in manyother research papers, as well. But there is one important danger:youmust not overload these paragraphs, letting the extended definition run awaywith the paper. If the purpose of the paper is an argument, then theintroduction to it must focus briefly and succinctly only on those mattersessential for an understanding of the argument. You have to be careful not tolet this introductory material grow so long that it takes over the paper.Thisis a danger many students are easily seduced into making, because providingpages and pages of such introductory material is easy (what’s called in thetrade “stuffing the turkey”).

Soyou have to observe three principles in such extensive definitions: (1) onlyinclude matters relevant to what you are going to say later, (2) provide thatfactual description quickly and clearly, and (3) keep the tone neutral (don’tlaunch into the argument in this section of the introduction).

Wewill be coming back to this important matter in the later discussion of thestructure of the research paper.

4.8Some Summary Points on Definition

Toconclude the last two sections of this handbook, let us review briefly the mainpoints about definitions.

Thefirst task in any argument is to set it up properly, so that the listener or thereader clearly understands what is being put into debate, what is not beingincluded, and what essential information is required to follow the argument.

Inmost cases, the argument will be defined in the opening paragraph (theIntroduction) and the definitions (if necessary) will follow in one or twosubsequent paragraphs. Here, for example, are some sample outlines for theopening paragraphs of a longer argument in which some definition is necessarybefore the main argument commences.


GeneralSubject: Unnecessary drugs
Focus 1: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder
Focus 2: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder in the Public Schools

Thesis:The present use of Ritalin the public schools is a major scandal which isenriching the drug companies and perhaps making the lives of elementary schoolteachers less troublesome but which is turning thousands of childrenunnecessarily into addicts.

Paragraph1: What exactly is Ritalin (paragraph goes on to define what Ritalin ischemically, giving an idea of what it is and how it works, but briefly).

Paragraph2: Ritalin is routinely prescribed for a condition known as Attention DeficitDisorder (ADD). The standard definition of this condition is as follows.(Paragraph goes on to define ADD).

Paragraph3: What’s wrong with this? Well, for a start. . . . (the argument starts herewith the first point in support of the thesis).


(Video) IELTS Writing task 2: agree or disagree essay

GeneralSubject: Modern poetry
Focus 1: The Imagist Movement
Focus 2: The Imagist Movement: Stylistic Innovations

Thesis:The Imagist Movement, in fact, marked a decisive break with traditional way ofwriting poetry and clearly initiated the major features which have dominated thewriting of poetry, especially lyric poetry, ever since. As such, it is the mostimportant development in English poetry in the past century.

Paragraph1: The Imagist Movement began with a small meeting of a few young writers inLondon in 1914. . . (Paragraph goes on to give a narrative description of thefacts surrounding the beginning of the Imagist Movement).

Paragraph2: The basic principles of this new movement were few and easy to understand.(Paragraph goes on to define in further detail just what the Imagist Movementconsisted of).

Paragraph3: These principles marked a decisive break with tradition. (Argument startshere with attention to the first point in support of the thesis).


GeneralSubject: Natural Science
Focus 1: Evolution and Creationism
Focus 2: The flaws in the Creationist argument.

Thesis:The standard arguments from Creationist thinkers who insist on the scientificvalidity of their theories are so basically flawed that it is difficult tounderstand how any rational person can take seriously anything they say aboutevolution.

Paragraph1: What exactly does the term Creationism mean? (Paragraph goes on to definethis key term).

Paragraph2: Before exploring the argument, we must also establish clearly what modernscience means by evolution and by Natural Selection, since these terms arecommonly confused. (Paragraph goes on to define these two key terms)

Paragraph3: The first problem with the logic of the Creationist is clear enough.(Paragraph starts the argument here with the first point in support of thethesis).

Torepeat a point made more than once in this section: not all essays will needdefinitions of this sort, and the arguer can launch the argument immediatelyafter the introductory paragraph. This will normally be the case in shortessays, especially those on literature. But in a longer research paper, suchdefinition is frequently essential, especially when you are writing for ageneral audience which has no expert knowledge of the subject matter you arelooking at.

4.9Defining the Scope of the Essay

Animportant part of defining the argument is often an indication of the scope ofthe argument, that is, a clear indication of what it does not include. If theprecise extent of the claim you are making is not clear to the reader orlistener, then she may bring to the argument expectations which you have nointention of fulfilling. Thus, it is usually very helpful to provide someinformation about how far your argument reaches. Notice how the followingsentences, inserted in the opening paragraph before the statement of the thesis,help to resolve this issue.

Bylooking closely at this scene (and only at this scene), we come to understandsome really important features of Hamlet’s personality.

Afull examination of the social problems of alcoholism would require severalbooks. However, even a cursory look at the problems of teenage drinking inNanaimo reveals some important points about our perceptions of the problems.

TheNative land claims issue in BC is full of legal, moral, historical, and economiccomplexities, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore theseconcerns. What is relevant here is the particular response of the federalgovernment to the crisis at Oka.

Thecauses of the French Revolution have been much discussed and disputed. Clearlythere were many factors involved over a long period of time. What is ofparticular concern here is the immediate economic crisis faced by thegovernment. If we set aside all the other important factors and focus on that,we can see how the revolution was almost inevitable.

Noticehow these sentences alert the reader to the important point that you are notdiscussing all the issues raised by the subject you are dealing with. You areidentifying something very specific and indicating at the same time what youwill not be considering.

(Video) GRE Argument Essay Step-by-step Guide and Example

Rememberthat no reader of your argument has a valid objection if she protests that youdid not talk about something you deliberately and clearly excluded, but herresponse can be a very important criticism if you have not expressly indicatedthat omission early in the paper.

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