To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay. This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant. You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.
This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.
You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
|Analyse||Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.|
|Assess||Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.|
|Clarify||Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.|
|Comment upon||Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.|
|Compare||Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.|
|Consider||Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.|
|Contrast||Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.|
|Critically evaluate||Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.|
|Define||To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.|
|Demonstrate||Show how, with examples to illustrate.|
|Describe||Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.|
|Discuss||Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.|
|Elaborate||To give in more detail, provide more information on.|
|Evaluate||See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.|
|Examine||Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.|
|Explain||Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.|
|Explore||Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.|
|Give an account of||Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.|
|Identify||Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.|
|Illustrate||A similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.|
|Interpret||Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.|
|Justify||Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.|
|Outline||Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.|
|Review||Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.|
|Show how||Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.|
|State||To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.|
|Summarise||Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.|
|To what extent||Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.|
Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm
The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:
Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm
Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714
Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering
How to Write an Extended Definition
The first consideration is that a word doesn’t have one “right” meaning. There are more ideas or concepts than there are words, so the same word has to mean different things at different times. Conversely, different words or phrases can be used to name the same concept. What is necessary for clear thinking is that the parties to the conversation know what concept they are dealing with at any time. Therefore, in writing an extended definition, don’t define the word—rather explain the concept, and show why it’s important that the reader have clearly in mind the same concept you have in mind.
So a definition is partly fact (“This is what this word means when military historians, or beekeepers, use it.”) and partly reasoned opinion ("Let's agree, for now, to use this word in this way so we can understand each other and cometo areement on other things."
An extended definition can be built outward from a logical definition, also known as a dictionary definition, or a notional definition, or an Aristotelian definition. It takes this form:
Definiendum = genus + differentia.
The is the term or concept you are defining. The is the category or class which the definiendum is a part of. The is the characteristic or group of characteristics that set the definiendum apart from other members of the genus. For example, a choke cherry (definiendum) is a kind of cherry (genus) distinguished by its bitter, astringent taste that makes it inedible until it is cooked (differentia).
Even if you don’t state your logical definition in precisely this way in your essay, you should still have it clearly in mind. This is so your concept doesn’t shift to something else without your noticing it (this can happen easily), and so your reader will be able to reconstruct the logical definition from what you do say. Unless you’re sure of your step, it’s safest and most considerate of your reader to state the logical definition outright, usually near the beginning of your essay.
There are a few cautions to observe in putting together your logical definition. Don’t create a circular definition—don’t, that is, define a word in terms of itself, as in “Patriotism is the quality of being a patriot.” And definition by metaphor is not a logical definition, though it can have its uses: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” can convey something true, but it does’nt do the work of a definition, which is to tell us what patriotism is.
In an , the logical definition is elaborated on by various means, all of which are used to make the concept clearer in the reader’s mind. It’s up to you to determine which ones you use, and in what order, taking into account what it is you are defining, what you think your readers know already, whether you think they are simply unfamiliar with the concept, or have got it mixed up with other, somewhat similar concepts, and whether they are already disposed to see things as you see them, or will need convincing.
- Make sure you are clear about the use or the purpose of the definition. Why is it important for your reader to share your idea? Share the reason with your reader!
- Since the differentia is usually the part of the logical definition that needs the most clarification, develop it by comparison and contrast, and develop the contrasts by examples. Sometimes you need many examples; more often you can do better with one or two well-chosen examples if you accompany them with explanations why one example belongs inside the concept you are defining, and another on the outside. If you are defining domestic cat, for instance, you could show why a Maine Coon Cat is a domestic cat, while a Cerval Cat is not, though they are both small members of the cat family). If a suitable real example is not available, you can make up a hypothetical example, a useful fiction, so long as you are clear it is a fiction (you do not want people to think you really had a five-hundred-pound cat that slept on your bed and purred!).
- Show, by the same techniques, how your concept is different from other concepts that might, for whatever reason, be confused with it—for instance, why a skunk, though small, fluffy, and sometimes adopted as a pet, is not a domestic cat, or why using a polite conventional phrase like “fine” when you’re asked how you are, even if you have appendicitis, is not the same kind of thing as a white lie.
- Look for a test that can be used to determine whether something falls within the concept—an operational definition. If so, tell how it works, and why it was chosen. For example,a car qualifies as a Zero Emission Vehicle if it performs a certain way on a particular test. Operational definitions are used all the time in the sciences.
- Make the concept clearer by listing and describing its parts, or its subtypes, or its phases of development.
- Place the concept in relation to other concepts. Often cause-and-effect reasoning is useful here. Where does the domestic cat come from? Did the domestic cat become what it is because of the way people have treated cats over the centuries? How does your concept of domestic cat relate to the concept of pet? How is the concept of lying related to the concept of honesty—would you say a person is honest only if he never, ever lies?
- Especially if it helps make what you say under #3 or #6 clearer, you could give the history of the word you are using to name the concept you are defining. If your choice of that word is controversial, explain why you chose it.
- If value is part of the concept, deal explicitly with why that is so. Consider one commonly encountered example: for many people, something does not qualify as art unless it is of high quality—in their concept of art, there can be no bad art, because anything that’s bad isn’t art at all. That opens up new issues: What kind of goodness is needed to qualify? How would you determine what is good enough? People commonly talk and write sometimes as if value were part of the definition of an idea, while at other times they seem to assume that value is not a necessary part of the concept. When you are defining, commit yourself to one or the other.
The methods of development you choose will depend on your reason for defining the term as well as on your reader(s). There is no one right way. Usually a combination of methods is best. In any case, you must be clear in your own mind about why you want your readers to understand the concept you are defining; otherwise you cannot be clear to them, and they may never be motivated to understand you.
So pick a concept to define that matters to you.
You may want to look at a similar page at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute which might be just different enough.