A Definition Essay
Examples: A definition essay may try and
define . . .
 the meaning of an abstract concept, like
 the true meaning and importance of
 how the meaning of family goes deeper
than just your blood relatives.
A Definition Essay
A definition essay attempts to define
a specific term.
tries to pin down the meaning of a
specific word, or define an abstract
goes deeper than a simple dictionary
A Definition Essay
attempts to explain why the term is
defined as such.
could define the term directly,
giving no information other than the
explanation of the term.
it could imply the definition of the
term, telling a story that requires the
reader to infer the meaning.
def-i-ni-tion (def' e-nish' en) n. 1. The act of defining a word,
phrase, or term. 2. The act of making clear and distinct. 3. A
determining of outline, extent, or limits.
Consider the following guidelines as you write your definition
•Make your essay personal, amusing, vigorous, stimulating,
•Choose a generic topic rather than a specific topic. For
example, write about churches but not Westminster Abbey.
•Your task is to make the definition
fresh by using your own understanding
and experience to illuminate the word’s meaning.
1. What is the term to be defined?
2. Who is the intended audience for the
writing? Is this a general audience for
which terms must be broken down in
laymen's terms or is it a specific/specialized
audience that will know technical terms and
will not require further definition?
3. What is the purpose for the intended
Three Steps to Effective Definition
Tell readers what term is being
2. Present clear and basic information.
3. Use facts, examples, or anecdotes that
readers will understand.
Choosing a Definition
Choosing a definition is a key step in writing a
definition essay.
 You need to understand the term before you can
define it for others.
 Read the dictionary, but don't just copy the
 Be able to explain the term briefly in your own
Limiting Your Term
 It's
important to limit your term before you
start defining it.
 For example,
– you could write forever on the term
– To limit it, you would write about either
 "romantic love,"
 "platonic love,"
 "first love."
Outline – The Introduction
Introduction: Attention getter
You may want to include the traditional or dictionary
definition here to provide a basis for your personal
b. You may want to open with a contradictory image to
illustrate what that term is not.
Thesis Statement
Outline – The Introduction
Your thesis statement should include the following
The term to be defined
Sentence definition of the term
Reason(s) for giving a more detailed definition
The kinds of additional information that will be used
to extend the definition
Outline – The Body
The body of an extended definition may use one or more of the
patterns of organization to assist in a fuller explanation of the
You must include in the body of your essay a minimum of
things to focus on from the list below:
a. Etymology: Where do words come from? How and when
were they invented? Why are there so many different
languages? Why do many languages share the same or
similar words for the same things?
b. Counterpoints or Negation: What is it NOT? What
can't it do? What are its limitations?
c. Process: describes the steps necessary to accomplish a
described task.
d. Anecdotal Illustration: Narrate illustrations that can
clarify a group, theory, or object.
Outline – The Body
You must include in the body of your essay a minimum of
to focus on from the list below:
2 things
a. Description: A formal one line definition of the word is
appropriate for this technique. Ex. Cheese is a solid food
prepared from the pressed curd of milk, often seasoned and
b. Concrete Details: What are the physical
characteristics? What is remarkable and unique?
c. Analysis: Divide the subject into parts and define each part
d. Comparison/Contrast: What similarities and/or
differences can you identify when compared to something
Outline – The Body
You must include in the body of your essay a minimum of
to focus on from the list below:
2 things
a. Narrative: a story that helps to illustrate the depth of
meaning in the term
b. Effects: Discuss the uses and consequences (both
positive and negative) of the subject.
c. Classification: According to dictionary definitions, what
classes does the subject belong to?
d. Origins & Cause: Where did the subject come from?
What is the background information? What is the history
of the subject?
Outline – The Conclusion
A. Closing attention getter – WRAP IT UP!!
• Sometimes a reference back to the opening attentiongetter is a good way of unifying the entire essay
B. FUTURE: You should end with a comment about the
future of the Idea/Concept/Term
A. What does the future hold for the subject? Speculate
on its effectiveness and duration into the future.
C. REFLECTION: Include a comment about the term, or a
summarizing statement regarding the paper itself, may
often be included.
D. End with an explanation of how your definition has
affected you.
Purpose of the Paper
. . . To see if you can write at length about some topic, in a
focused and sustained way.
Focused -- not rambling disconnectedly on "everything
I know about X", but discussing a specific topic or cluster of
interrelated topics in an integrated way.
Sustained -- following through some clear line(s) of
argument in some depth.
That still leaves options.
You may go 'vertically' and dig more deeply into one
particular issue; or
You may go 'horizontally' and be concerned to make
connections, and show how different parts of a
“philosophical” landscape fit together -- or a bit of both.
Whichever way you go, you should aim for a clearly structured
essay and some meaty arguments.
Purpose of the Paper
A definition essay defines a word, term, or concept in depth by
providing a personal commentary on what the specific
subject means.
A. Most physical objects have a definition about which most
people agree.
1. Most people will agree on what trees, windows,
computers, and pencils are in general.
2. These objects all have specific physical properties that
most people can agree on through the use of their
physical senses.
Focus of the Paper
However, abstract terms, such as love, pain,
or patriotism, have different meanings for
different individuals since such terms play on
people’s feelings more than their physical
C. The definition essay provides a personal,
extended definition of such terms by linking
or comparing the term to a previous
definition and by illustrating how that term
should be applied.
Selecting a TERM for the Paper
Select a subject carefully.
Since such essays are personal in nature, select your
subject based on your own need to clarify the
For example, if you feel that the word marriage
should be defined in a limited manner, that term
would make a good subject for a definition essay.
Perhaps as a student, you want to define what the
term education means from your point of view.
Selecting a TERM for the Paper
Select a term or subject that you know well
enough so that you can provide specific
examples to illustrate your definition.
For example, if you aren’t familiar with the term
platonic love, don’t attempt to define it in an
extended essay.
The subject of the essay must be familiar enough
to you that you can readily supply specific
Selecting a TERM for the Paper
Don’t select a subject either too broad or too
narrow to fit the parameters of your essay.
For example, the word hat may be too narrow for
you to define in an extended essay.
On the other hand, the term love may be too broad
or general since pinning it down to a single
definition is very difficult.
Preparing for the Paper
Complete the following steps in the process of collecting details for your definition essay:
1. Select a word that you plan to investigate. The word should have some interest, importance, or
meaning to you personally. Example: Beauty, persistence, enlightenment, punishment etc.
2. Begin by writing down a few simple statements about your word: "Laughter is ......"
3. Now record the word's dictionary definition:
4. Classify your word: Part of Speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb
General Type: character trait, political term, value, religion, literary term, etc.
5. In a thesaurus, discover words that have similar meanings.
6. Differentiate:
a. Write out a series of negative definitions: (Laughter is not.....)
b. Make a list of subtle and borderline comparisons: (Laughter may seem similar to humor, but ....)
7. Identify at least two extended examples which illustrate the word.
8. After your research, determine a particular thesis or main idea about your word.
Brief Example – Woman – 259 words
What is a woman? A woman is a female by denotation, but the
connotations are almost limitless. A woman is a marvelous creation
designed for multiple applications. From her controversial beginnings in the
Garden of Eden, to her place in modern culture, woman has never been
without her critics. Despite being blamed for the downfall of man, woman
has managed to survive right along with her male counterpart.
A woman may be classified in many ways: as a mother, a daughter, a
sister or friend; as a laborer or a professional; but, in recent years, women
have become harder and harder to classify by their roles or their
careers. Instead, a woman may be described as nurturing, but she is also
competitive and a risk-taker. She must be tough and resilient as well as
living up to her reputation for tenderness and softness. She has fought to
overcome old stereotypes of hysteria and emotional outbursts.
Modern culture requires women to be savvy, well-educated, nurturing
and self-supporting. No free rides for this modern female. A woman,
however, no matter how accomplished and well-rounded is not a man. She
does not crave the remote control, she does not engage in "testosterone tests"
shouldering her opponents out of the way! No, though able to compete with
the best, she is always conscious of bringing friends (and enemies) to a
higher level.
The future looks good for woman. She is a traditional part of the past,
a worthy participant in the present, and a dynamic force for the future.
Sample Definition Essay - This Thing Called “Love”
A wise man once said that love is a
wonderful thing. Although this statement
leaves sparse room for argument, it does
little to define what love is beyond the
vague realm of wonderful. It is my duty
as a devout romantic to embark upon the
seemingly difficult task of defining love
by looking at the history, explaining
what love is not, and examining the uses
of love and the results of that usage.
(Origin and Causes)
The origin of the word is probably the most logical place
to start. As with many words in the English language, love is a
derivative of the Latin word "causemajoraproblemus" which
means "You're miserable when you got it and miserable when
you don't." The word was created to explain the biological
phenomenon that existed when certain individuals came into
contact with each other and either remained together or went
about their lives separately. Regardless of the outcome, the
relationship was usually characteristic of throat lumps, knotted
stomaches, weak knees, temporary loss of language, sweaty
palms, dizzyness, sneezing, and occasional nausea. Belligerent
insanity also resulted. History clearly illustrates this. Can we
ever forget the face that launched a thousand ships? Federally
expressing Van Gogh's ear? The construction of Le Tour Eiffel?
All of these were results of love and love lost.
Star-crossed lovers have stated that love is not hand nor foot
nor any part belonging to a man. Matrimonial ceremonies also
claim that love is not jealous or boastful. Let it be stated here that
love also is not a gourmet dish, a domesticated animal, or a latest
trend. Love is not a strategic defense mechanism nor the best kept
secret at the Pentagon. Love is not another seasoning to bottle and
stick on the dust-lined shelves of the spice rack. Love is not to be
confused with adhesive tape.
Instead, love is a great counterpart to late, evening thunder
storms on hot July nights. Love goes well with cold pizza on picnic
blankets. Love is cold, wet sand between bare toes. Love is a
capitalistic sell-all for novels, Top-40 pop songs, summer movies,
and greeting cards.
In its simplest terms, love is a four-letter word. Much like
other words of similar letter make up, when expressed it can evoke
laughter, pleasure, pain, anger, and virtually any wave of reaction.
Love also can be confused with feelings of indigestion and gas.
Houses have been built, burned, and banished because of love.
Starter Topics
1. Write an essay defining a food--but include a thesis
statement that paints a very favorable portrait of a
much-maligned food (for example, Spam or Brussels
sprouts) or a very negative picture of a popular food (for
example, chocolate or ice cream).
2. Write an essay in which you define burden at a
personal level, by giving examples of the kinds of things
you consider burdens. You might want to develop your
definition essay with comparison and contrast, exploring
the differences between a burden and a responsibility.
3. Write an essay in which you define a family role, for
example, the role of a stepmother. Make sure to include
the duties of this person.
 OR you could pick one of these . . . .
TOPICS List (about.com)
Peace of mind
Right to privacy
Common sense
Team player
Healthy appetite
Sense of humor
A good (or bad)
teacher or
Physical fitness
A happy marriage
True friendship
A good (or bad) coach
A good (or bad) roommate
Political correctness
Peer pressure
Human rights
A good (or bad) boss
A good (or bad) parent
Model Paragraphs and Essays
A Definition of Happiness, by
Nikos Kazantzakis
A Definition of a Jerk, by Sydney J.
Gifts, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gore Vidal's Definition of
A Definition of Pantomime, by
Julian Barnes
The Meaning of Home, by John
The Essence of Humanism, by
William James