What’s the Deal with the
From College Writing Skills with Readings by John Langan
When you write a definition essay . . .
• your main purpose is to explain to your readers your
understanding of a key term or concept
• your secondary purpose is to persuade them that your
definition is a legitimate one
Keep in mind that a definition essay
does not simply repeat a word’s
Instead, it conveys what a particular
term means to you.
For example . . .
. . . if you were to write about the term patriotism, you might
begin by presenting your definition of the word.
You might say patriotism means turning out for Fourth of
July parades, displaying the flag, or supporting the
Or perhaps you think patriotism is about becoming
politically active and questioning government policy.
Whatever definition you choose, be sure to provide specific
instances so that readers can fully understand your
meaning of the term.
Think of this essay as an extended definition of one of
A word/phrase (mama’s boy)
A thing (laser beam)
A condition (schizophrenia)
A concept (TV addiction)
A general phenomenon (popularity of YouTube)
Questions to ask about your subject before writing :
Is it unique, or are there others of its kind? If it resembles others, in what ways?
How is it different? As you can see, these last two questions invite you to COMPARE
In what different forms does it occur?
When and where do we find it? Under what circumstances and in what situations?
What is it at the present moment?
What does it do? What are its functions and activities? What are its functions and
How is it put together? What parts make it up? What holds these parts together?
Note: Not all of these questions will fit your particular subject, duh.
WRITING: Methods of Development
In this essay, you may draw on various techniques you’ve learned throughout
the semester to broaden your definition of your topic. For instance, you
• DESCRIBE your term
• COMPARE OR CONTRAST your term to another term
• explain the CAUSE or EFFECTS of your term
• explain how your term came to be (think PROCESS)
Pull some tools from your super smart, gigantic, ultra-inflated brains to help
write this essay with flair.
Your thesis needs to at least state what your
topic is and AT LEAST hint at what your
definition looks like
Examples of excellent thesis statements
The people in my grandmother’s living room took a word
[nigger] that whites used to signify worthlessness or
degradation and rendered it impotent . . . Meeting the word
head-on, they (African-Americans) proved it had absolutely
nothing to do with the way they were determined to live their
lives. –Gloria Naylor, “The Meanings of a Word.”
The word chink may have been created to harm, ridicule, and
humiliate, but for us [Chinese Americans] it may have done
the exact opposite. –Christing Leong, “Being a Chink.”
Checklist for Revising a Definition
MEANINGS Have you explored your subject fully, turning up both
its obvious and its not-so-obvious meanings?
METHODS OF DEVELOPMENT Have you used an appropriate range
of other methods to develop your subject?
THESIS Have you focused your definition and kept within that
focus, drawing clear boundaries around your subject?
EVIDENCE Is your definition specific? Do examples, anecdotes, and
concrete details both pin the subject down and make it vivid for
UNITY Do all paragraphs focus on your thesis, and do individual
paragraphs or groups of paragraphs focus on parts of your