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Defining the terms we use in our writing is a key strategy for helping align our audience to the points we wish to make about a topic. For example, if we write an essay defending freedom of speech, it will make a big difference to our audience if our definition stops at “the right of people to express their views without government interference” and leaves out any mention of using speech to incite others to rebellion or to hate crimes. Too often, student writers assume that their readers will understand the terms that they draw on in their papers, and thus their writing can lack precision.


There are multiple ways to define a term, from formal definition through to definition by any of the other rhetorical strategies. Often, dictionary definitions of words use a formal template, which specifies the class or category of the thing, along with the characteristics which distinguish the thing from others in the same class. For example:


a triangle is a polygon (the class or category) with three sides (distinguishing characteristics)

a quadrilateral is a polygon with four sides


We can use formal definitions in writing, even, for example, when defining terms like democracy (“a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system”). 


Another more formal technique to use in defining a term for our readers is etymology. Sometimes, understanding the origins of a term can help us define it for our readers. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the etymological origins of the term ‘democracy’, and suggests that it came into English from the French démocratie, which came from the medieval Latin dēmocratia as a translation from the Greek δημοκρατία, meaning   popular government, with δῆμος referring to ‘the commons’ or ‘the people’ and κρατια   κράτος   meaning ‘rule, sway, authority’. Using etymology evokes centuries of political history, going back to ancient Athens, and a writer would probably want to pursue further the history of democracy when using etymology as a technique of definition of this term.


Other abstract terms, such as belonging defy formal definitions. In these cases, we can draw on a number of other techniques for defining the terms we use


  • We can define by example, as Salman Rushdie does in this excerpt from the novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in defining what it ‘not belonging’ means:


     For a long while I have believed...that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race....And in the waking dreams our societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks. What we forbid ourselves we pay good money to watch, in a playhouse or movie theatre, or to read about between the secret covers of a book. Our libraries, our places of entertainment tell the truth. The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.


  • We can define by providing attributes/characteristics as well as by comparison/contrast: In this excerpt from Rose Del Castillo Guilbault’s "Americanization Is Tough on 'Macho'", the author uses a rhetorical strategy of comparison/contrast combined with definition by attributes to point out the differences in the meaning of the term ‘macho’ in Latin America and the United States:


     The Hispanic macho is manly, responsible, hardworking, a man in charge, a patriarch. A man who expresses strength through silence. What the Yiddish language would call a mensch.

     The American macho is a chauvinist, a brute, uncouth, selfish, loud, abrasive, capable of inflicting pain, and sexually promiscuous.


  • We can define through negation, by explaining what the term is not, and then explaining what it is:


     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.  (Unknown source, available at multiple online sites)



To praise is not to applaud, celebrate, commend, flatter, or puff—but rather it is to nurture the human spirit. (Online Writing Center, Southern Illinois University)


  • We can define by using an analogy. It is important in defining by analogy to express the limits of the analogy:


     There are a couple of different analogies that make understanding Inversion of Control easier. We experience this in many different ways in regular life, so we are borrowing the form in code. One analogy is called the "Chain of Command" in the military.

     This is probably the clearest parallel to Inversion of Control. The military provides each new recruit with the basic things he needs to operate at his rank, and issues commands that recruit must obey. The same principle applies in code. Each component is given the provisions it needs to operate by the instantiating entity (i.e. Commanding Officer in this analogy). The instantiating entity then acts on that component how it needs to act. 

     There are some deficiencies in this analogy as some military or ex-military people have explained to me. In the military, any Commanding Officer can issue commands to anyone under his or her rank. In the development world, to ensure proper security, this is not a pattern you want in your software. In Avalon, Inversion of Control (IoC) is from one parent (controlling) object to a child (controlled) component. A parent may have many children, but children only have one parent.


(‘Excalibur’, retrieved from: http://excalibur.apache.org/framework/guide-patterns-ioc.html)


  • We can define by explaining the function of the term. In the example, the author combines etymology with function to explain what gossip is:


     Although the word 'gossip' was originally a positive or at least neutral term (deriving from 'God-sibb' – a person related to one in God, a close friend or companion), it has more recently acquired some pejorative connotations. Yet most of the research highlights the positive social and psychological functions of gossip: facilitating relationship-building, group bonding, clarification of social position and status, reinforcing shared values, conflict resolution and so on. One moral philosopher goes so far as to claim that gossip, by enhancing our knowledge and understanding of human nature, qualifies as a 'saintly virtue'. (Fox, K. ‘Evolution, alienation and gossip: The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century’


  • We can define a term by offering causes, effects and/or results


     A drug is defined as any substance that can alter the homeostasis of the body. (Engs, R.C. ‘alcohol and other drugs: self responsibility)


Of course, we often combine different strategies within a text to define a term in a more complete way.


Download this handout


Text to analyze:


Sample Essays:


CCC Handout


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