In the Definition Essay, the student defines in depth (and in their own words) a term, a concept or a word, ultimately explaining what it means to them personally and perhaps how it may be best defined to others – whether they may see it in more broadened or narrowed terms.
The Definition Essay generally illustrates how different points construct the student-writer’s interpretation of a term’s definition; this becomes the argument they are defending and upholding throughout the essay, which becomes its central theme – the essay’s Thesis.
Rather than expounding on the meaning of physical objects, or on concrete objects like apples, a book, jacket or a candle, the Definition Essay is meant for a student to subjectively define an abstract term, such love, affection or intelligence – terms that carry different meanings and connotations to different people.
For example, if they feel that the word “freedom” should be defined in a limited manner (or if they feel “freedom” carries more liberal implications), the student can explore the term in an essay, illustrating what the word means to them and, quite possibly, to others.
Standard Outline for a Definition Essay
(Follows the format of a five-paragraph essay.)
I. Introduction Paragraph
In the essay’s first paragraph, the student introduces the scope of the essay and provides a generic definition of their chosen term. They may also include examples of this definition, illustrating it in its concrete version. One could illustrate how “marriage” is a social institution created to sustain the religious sanctity of marriage, that it should be limited to a man and woman, thereby excluding homosexual marriage.
If the student wishes to define, in their own terms, “marriage,” they will first provide the word’s definition, which can be found in any given dictionary: Marriage for many people is “the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.”
However, this definition of “marriage” does not work for many people. The term could also refer to “the formal union between a man and a woman AND between partners of the same sex.”
Next in this paragraph, the student-writer offers their interpretation of the term (the Thesis Statement), which may or may not contrast to the term’s primary definition. In most cases it will.
They will end this paragraph listing the criteria they are using to expound this interpretation – defending points that will be illustrated in the rest of the essay.
II. Body Paragraphs
The body paragraphs (that is, generally the second, third and fourth paragraphs of the five-paragraph essay) are meant for illustrating the different points (the student-writer’s criteria for their definition) that construct one’s interpretation of the definition, the entire point of the Definition Essay.
One at a time, each body paragraph is to focus on one criterion. Each body paragraph, except for the conclusion paragraph at the end, demonstrates how the Thesis is true (in this case, the writer’s interpretation of the definition and how they came to it) and provides an analysis.
III. Conclusion Paragraph
Perhaps the most important paragraph of the Definition Essay, the Conclusion Paragraph not only indicates to the reader that the essay has come to a close, but gives the reader an overview of the entire essay up to this point; this final paragraph restates the initial, standard dictionary definition (which was first stated in the introduction paragraph) and ends in the points illustrated in the previous body paragraphs.
Once they provide an overview of their argument and its criteria, the student-writer may wish to explain how the term can be applied, most effectively, in broader, looser or even stricter terms.
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