Definitional Argument
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These arguments are particularly powerful in
that they help determine what something or
someone is. Thus, they can result in inclusion or
exclusion.
They help us recognize that classifications
change over time and are the result of cultural,
social, and political forces.
Definitions often serve group agendas while
ignoring or attempting to silence others.
Definitional Argumentation
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We rely on definition for successful, efficient
communication.
As you have experienced with the Fact Paper, our
ability to make an argument is limited when we cannot
appeal to values.
Contrary to the belief that values diminish the validity
of an argument by rendering it mere opinion, values are
a necessary part of the argument.
Indeed, they are the very heart of an argument.
Thus, evaluative terms are notoriously difficult to
define.
Sample Questions For Potential
Theses
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Questions related to genus:
Is assisting in suicide a crime?
 Is NASCAR a sport?
 Is rap poetry?
 What is an X [insert your own choice here]
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Questions related to species:
Is marijuana a relatively harmless drug or a
dangerous, addictive one?
 Is Saudi Arabia an ally or an opponent of the USA?
 Is TV’s “Survivor” a reality show or a game show?
 Is X a Y or a Z [Insert your own topic}
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Questions related to conditions:
Should a woman be held to the same physical
requirements as a man in order to join the military?
 Should everyone pay the same percentage of their
income taxes regardless of their income?
 Are high scores on the SAT’s a fair condition for
entrance into universities?
 Must X occur in order for Y? [Insert your topic]
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Questions related to the fulfillment of conditions:
Should academic scholarships count as taxable
income?
 Should nontraditional educated experiences, such as
semesters abroad and internships, count for college
credit?
 Should X be counted as Y for the purposes of Z?
[Insert your topic]
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In summary, keep in mind that you can
approach an argument of definition by:
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Formulating a definition (What is X?): “Terrorism
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is any non-wartime act of violence undertaken for
political gain.”
Challenging a definition (Y is not X.): “Violence
undertaken as part of a revolt against an oppressive
regime is not terrorism.”
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Trying to determine if something fits an accepted
definition (Y is/is not X): “The Irish Republican
Army is/is not a terrorist organization.”
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Questions related to the membership in a named class:
Is any recent president in a class with Washington,
Lincoln, and/or Roosevelt?
 Is any writer today in a class with Shakespeare, Janet
Austen, and/or John Steinbeck?
 Is any actor today in a class with Steward, Gable,
Hepburn, or Taylor?
 Does X deserve the status of Y? [Insert your topic]
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To establish what is meant by an evaluative word, we must rely
on precedent and context.
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We can refer to authoritative sources such as dictionaries, but we
must also take into account common usage and intent.
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In the case of words like hot, cold, short, or tall, there may be
specific temperatures or heights that we can all agree define that
term.
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There is no such widespread agreement for other evaluative
terms, especially cultural values.
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Cultural values are key terms to which we appeal over and again when
deciding a course of action.
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They are values that most people would agree are fundamental to our society,
even if we cannot agree on their definition.
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Examples of cultural values are: freedom, happiness, efficiency, maturity,
ingenuity, independence, health, security, life, criminality, responsibility, and
sustainability.
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This assignment is designed to give you practice in another technique of
persuasive writing, that of defining a cultural value or other key term in such a
way that seems credible to your reader.
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Your ability to credibly define your terms will help you to contribute to a
range of public discourse in influential ways.
Directive
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Identify an instance in a document or broadcast in which
the meaning an author assigns to a word is debatable.
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You are not looking for an instance in which someone
uses a term incorrectly.
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Rather, you are looking for an instance in which a person
applies a word to an object or situation, and you disagree
with the person’s evaluation of that object or situation.
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When you have your example, then answer for
yourself the following questions:
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Why is it important to dispute the meaning of
that word?
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Your answer to that questions will help in
determining your thesis/or claim.
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Begin your essay by summarizing your example,
presenting your thesis, and previewing your
definition of the disputed word.
Following your introduction, present your research
on your word that supports the usage for which
you advocate.
There are a number of ways to establish a
precedent for a preferred meaning of a term,
including reference to a dictionary, but not
automatically to Webster’s Dictionary.
Here are 3 types of strategies:
Strategy #1
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You can trace the etymology of your word in the Oxford
English Dictionary at:
http://catalog.sjlibrary.org/record=b1879016~S1
Other dictionaries:
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Legal: http://www.legal-dictionary.org/
Philosophical:
http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/index.htm
Medical: http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/
Slang: http://www.urbandictionary.com/
Strategy #2
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Another way to establish the meaning of a term
is to define related terms. For instance, if you
are establishing the meaning of maturity, you may
also want to define experienced, responsible, and
established.
Strategy #3
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A third strategy to establish the meaning of a
term is to show how others use it, even if that
usage is common only to a certain group of
people. To do this, you will need to compile
examples of others using your word in the
manner for which you advocate. This research
might include reference to the term’s equivalent
in other languages.
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Community, democracy, intelligence, sin,
redemption, God, criminality, sex, morality, love, etc.
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After establishing a precedent for your preferred
meaning, explain the difference it will make to use that
meaning over another.
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You will want to provide specific examples of how the
word’s meaning can or will influence decision-making
and social action.
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Remember your purpose: Give a compelling
thesis/argument that gives reason for disputing
the meaning of a word.
Other items to consider:
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Who is your specific audience?
What are the counter-arguments to your
proposed definition?
In other words, anticipate oppositional stances.
How would you refute those stances?
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Definitional Argument