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Definition

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English

What is a pickaxe? Chances are your brain was just flooded with words like sharp, tool, wood, and metal. Why? Because you started to think about how to define a pickaxe. We use definition all the time to explain what something is, how it works, or its relationship to other things. Definition is a powerful rhetorical tool—a sort of rhetorical pickaxe if you will—to use when it is important to make the meaning of something clear.

What Is the Meaning of Definition?

First, what's a rhetorical mode?

Generally speaking, rhetorical modes are different ways a speaker or writer can share information with an audience in order to communicate knowledge and insight in an impactful way.

A definition is one type of rhetorical mode that communicates the meaning of a term, idea, or concept using various techniques. Definitions may seem like a basic, impersonal form of rhetoric. Still, they are influenced by the speaker or writer’s life experience—definitions allow people to share their personal understanding of something.

Everyone has a different take on the world and brings their own perspective to something—even as basic as defining a term. For example, lawyers may define the word 'addiction' in legal terms, parents may define it in moral terms, and doctors may define it in medical terms. But they’re all talking about the same thing!

For this reason, definitions require context to make the most impact on an audience.

A Good Definition Needs Context

Providing context for a definition will help the audience situate the object or idea you are defining. You could include different kinds of contexts to help your audience understand more about the term.

You could define something in the context of its purpose, importance, or process.

  • Purpose - The intended use of a thing

  • Importance - Includes historical background and significance, as well as benefits of use

  • Process - How something works

You could define one thing from these three perspectives and give much more information than a simple definition of what it is.

Let’s define the term 'composting' using these modes of context:

Purpose: Composting is the natural process of layering and mixing organic ingredients such as leaves and food scraps and turning them into fertilizer.

Importance: Compost provides many natural benefits to a garden, including the addition of natural nutrients for plant growth. Composting has been the basis for organic gardening since the early 20th century, when Sir Albert Howard devised a new method we now know as composting.

Process: Composting involves the right mixture of decomposing organic material, oxygen, and water and allows the already present bacteria to break down the plant material into useful fertilizer or compost.

Definition Dictionary Definition StudySmarterDictionary Definition, Unsplash.com

Definition as a Rhetorical Mode

Remember, rhetorical modes are how a writer or speaker can share information with an audience in a way that makes the most impact on their understanding of something. Definition is a useful rhetorical mode when discussing a topic not everyone is familiar with. It is also helpful in giving more information about something of which an audience may only have a basic knowledge.

Other rhetorical modes include:

  • Classification/ division - puts items into categories

  • Cause/ effect - shows how one thing can lead to another

  • Compare/ contrast - shows the relationship between two things

  • Description - gives details to create a picture

  • Narration - tells a story that makes a point

  • Process - explains how to do something

  • Illustration/ exemplification - clarifies a point or concept

  • Persuasion - offers a reasoned opinion

When to Use Definition

Use definition as a rhetorical mode when discussing something that has many layers of subjectivity in the way you define it (like the word addiction). You can also use definition when it might prove interesting or will help express a point.

Sometimes you need to define something because it is simply misunderstood or a topic of which very little is known.

Strategies of Definition

When you decide that definition is the best way to make your point, there are a few different options for going about it. These will all accomplish the goal of defining a term, but they will take different paths to get there. You can use just one of these or a combination of several to achieve the desired effect.

Definition by Denotation

You can define a term by denotation. This is the literal definition of something and likely what most of us understand as a basic definition.

An electronic book is a book in digital format that can be accessed on a device such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Definition by Connotation

Something could be defined by connotation, which is its suggested meaning. There is often an unspoken understanding of a term or idea, which rules how that thing is collectively known. Sometimes the best strategy is to define something by its connotation.

Blue is both a color and a way to describe how a person feels (i.e. sad).

Definition by Enumeration

Enumeration uses lists to define the attributes of something. By explaining the term’s attributes, you define it in a non-direct way. This is a good way to define a term that has many parts or a term with a general class.

A novel:

  • A relatively long work of narrative fiction

  • A piece of narrative writing usually published in book form

  • A fictitious story that incorporates elements of realism

Definition by Analogy

An analogy is a comparison between two similar things, usually to make the meaning of something more clear. Using an analogy to define something is like saying, “Do you know this thing? Well, this other thing is just like it in the following ways…”

Think of discussion boards for an online class as if they were your in-class discussions. They both allow the freedom of thought to flow from one student to another, and participation is typically mandatory.

Definition by Negation

Negation is defining something by telling what it is not. Sometimes this is a helpful way to define something because people may be more familiar with the opposing terms.

A nonprofit organization is an organization that does not make or is not primarily conducted to make a profit.

Examples of Definition in Essay Writing

Definitions are an excellent tool for writing an essay. You may be assigned a definition essay, where the definition of a term or idea will take up the majority of the essay. You may also use definition alongside other rhetorical modes to convey your idea in another type of essay.

For example, you might write a narrative essay about your favorite sport and find that you need to define the term ‘scrum’ in the sport of rugby. In this case, knowing what a scrum is will help the reader understand the aggressive nature of rugby.

Definition Defining a Scrum StudySmarterDefining a Scrum, Unsplash.com

Defining Concrete Concepts

The above example involving the rugby term is what is called a concrete definition. This is the definition of something that can be seen, heard, or felt. These concepts are often easier to describe because you can use words involving the five senses to describe the term.

Defining Abstract Concepts

As opposed to concrete concepts, abstract concepts are things that cannot be seen, felt, or heard because they take no physical form. And yet abstract concepts can be understood every bit as well as concrete concepts.

An example of an abstract concept is tradition. Could you define tradition using the five senses? You can’t see, taste, touch, smell, or hear tradition. You can, however, define it by its connotations—its implied meaning (i.e. beliefs, customs, stories, families etc.). You could also use any other strategy of definition to define tradition.

Characteristics of a Definition Essay

A definition essay either requires the writer to choose a topic to define or gives them a predetermined topic to define. If given the option to choose, be sure you choose a topic that is complex enough to be discussed at length. You’ll spend the bulk of the writing defining the term or concept chosen, but a definition essay will still follow the basic format of introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

Definition Essay Introduction

The introduction of a definition essay should open with a general discussion of the term, providing basic information using clear language, so there is no confusion. The introduction should do a few specific things; it should introduce the term or concept, provide background information about it, and state the thesis of the essay.

Definition essays should still contain a thesis statement. The thesis should include your definition of the term, as well as a commentary. This could be why it is important, disregarded, controversial, or anything relevant to the term.

The introduction is where you establish the context of your definition, so there is no confusion later in the essay. Include details like the circumstances, conditions, or the setting of your definition. Remember that words can take on different meanings in different contexts. For example, a cheerleading team leader is not the same as a leader on the battlefield and will have different attributes.

Definition: Essay Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs of a definition essay support the thesis statement, which means they will provide the rationale for your definition and commentary.

One way to construct a definition essay is to dedicate each body paragraph to one specific aspect of the term you're defining. You could use the body paragraphs to explore the different facets of the definition itself. There is no right or wrong way to use this space in a definition essay, as long as you develop your definition.

Definition: Essay Conclusion

The conclusion should pull together all the details from the body of the essay that developed the definition. Now is the time to remind the audience of your commentary, as well as your definition. This restates the thesis and proves to the audience that you made your point about the thing you defined.

Definition - Key takeaways

  • A definition is a rhetorical mode that communicates the meaning of a term, idea, or concept through various techniques.
  • Definition essays can follow the basic introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion structure
  • Strategies of definition include
    • Analogy
    • Connotation
    • Denotation
    • Negation
    • Enumeration
  • A good definition needs context
  • Context could be
    • Purpose
    • Importance
    • Process

Definition

A definition in essay writing is a way to communicate a term, idea, or concept through various techniques.

A definition essay could be about defining anything; an example is an essay defining Newton's first law.

Write a definition essay like any other essay with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. The thesis of a definition essay goes in the introduction. It should contain a definition of the term in a specific context and a commentary on it.

An effective definition uses context such as purpose, importance, or process.

Final Definition Quiz

Question

Please define the term 'definition'

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Answer

A definition is a rhetorical strategy that communicates the meaning of a term, idea, or concept through various techniques.

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Question

True or false: A definition can be influenced by a person's life experiences?

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Answer

True

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Question

Definitions need ___________ to help the audience situate the object or idea you're defining.

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Answer

Context

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Question

Context of a definition could include purpose, importance, and ___________.

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Answer

Process

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Question

Cause and effect, narration, persuasion, and definition are all examples of what?

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Answer

Rhetorical modes

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Question

When is a good time to use definition as a rhetorical mode?

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Answer

Use definition as a rhetorical mode when you are discussing something that has many layers of subjectivity, or when it might prove interesting or help expound upon a point. 


Sometimes you need to define something because it is simply misunderstood or a topic on which very little is known.

Show question

Question

Which strategy of definition is missing from the list?

Denotation

Enumeration

Analogy

Negation

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Answer

Connotation

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Question

Which strategy of definition uses lists to define the attributes of something?

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Answer

Enumeration

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Question

Which strategy of definition is what most of us understand as a basic definition?

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Answer

Denotation

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Question

Is the following example a concrete concept or abstract concept:

Culture

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Answer

Abstract

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Question

True or false: it is possible to use the standard 5-paragraph structure of introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion for a definition essay.

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Answer

True

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Question

A definition essay thesis statement should contain your definition of the term, as well as a _________ on the term or the context of the term.

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Answer

Commentary

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Question

What part of a definition essay should establish the context of your definition?

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Answer

Introduction

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Question

The __________ of a definition essay could each be dedicated to one specific aspect of the definition.

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Answer

Body paragraphs

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Question

True or false: the conclusion of a definition essay does not have to include your commentary on the term you defined.

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Answer

False

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