15 Composition: Definition Strategies

Two hands on a blue keyboard of a laptop on a table

What is a definition?

A definition explains what something is — or is not — by identifying unique qualities or characteristics.

For example, if you want to know the meaning of oxygen, you can look it up in the dictionary. Here’s what you will find:

Noun: a chemical element that is a colorless and odorless gas, and that all animals depend on to breathe. Its chemical symbol is O.

But what if someone asks you What is happiness? Again, you go to the dictionary, and it states:

Noun: the state of being happy

OK. That doesn’t help much, does it? What does being happy mean? Are you talking about what makes me happy or what makes people in general happy?

People define words, terms, and concepts to understand each other. In order to effectively communicate, there is a need to have a common understanding of words. However, this isn’t always easy. Definitions are often built upon people’s own experiences and perceptions. Your definition of happiness may be totally different from your grandmother’s idea of happiness.

Furthermore, the way you define terms can have far-reaching consequences for individuals as well as collective groups. For example, take a word like alcoholism. The way you define alcoholism depends on its legal, moral, and medical contexts. Lawyers may define alcoholism in terms of its legality. Parents may define alcoholism in terms of its morality (right and wrong). Doctors may define alcoholism in terms of physical symptoms.

Think also of terms that people tend to debate in the community. Think about the words marriage and climate change. How you define these words can have enormous impact on government policies and even on daily decisions. Think about conversations couples may have in which words like commitment, respect, or love need clarification. Defining terms within a relationship, or any other context, can at first be difficult. However, once a definition is established between two people or a group of people, it is easier to have productive discussions.

Why are definitions useful?

As a writer, you might use definitions for different strategic purposes. Here are some examples:

Purpose Example
Convey useful information The U.S. Congress is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Explain your perspective or ideas “Success” isn’t just a student graduating from high school.
Demonstrate that you understand the meaning Honesty is about telling the truth.
Entertain Modern music isn’t music because it’s just beats and bass.
Argue, challenge or extend a definition The definition of a “runner” is a person who runs a 10-minute mile or better.

How can you write definitions?

To achieve those goals, writers may use one or more of these definition strategies. Look at those strategies and some examples of how they are used to define the concept, or idea, of good students. Notice how the verbs in the examples are often in the simple present verb tense; that is a common way to report what others are saying about something.

Strategy Example for the idea of good students
Formal definition: Quote the dictionary Many different definitions for “good” (e.g., of high quality); student: “someone who goes to university, college or school”
Synonyms: Look at similar words No direct synonym; star student, overachiever, prized pupil
Description: Provide details Good students focus on more than grades, participate in class, and work with their teachers.
Etymology: Explain the word’s origins Separate origins for “good” and “student” — but not together
Illustration: Give examples Good students want to learn; arrive early; talk to teachers; do work.
Process analysis: Explore how it works In order to become a good student, one must carefully balance family, work, and school.
Compare/Contrast: Show similarities/differences to other things For a good student, school is like another job.
Negation: Explain what it is not Good students are not defined only by good grades.


Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: Read this example definition paragraph. Then answer the questions.

The definition of “good students” means more than just grades. Rather, good students pursue scholarship for the joy of learning. They actively participate in class in order to immerse themselves in the subject. Good students also maintain a positive, professional relationship with instructors and peers because a supportive sense of community is important for learning. Grades are important, but good students use them as one part of a greater whole.


Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: Complete the research chart for the definition of “happiness”.

Strategy Information about “happiness”
Formal definition: Quote the dictionary


Synonyms: Look at similar words


Description: Provide details


Etymology: Explain the word’s origins


Illustration: Give examples


Process analysis: Explore how it works


Compare/Contrast: Show similarities/differences to other things


Negation: Explain what it is not


Now use the best pieces of information (not all of the pieces) to write a paragraph defining “happiness”. Remember to start with a topic sentence. Then use this information to add supporting details.

How can you make a definition essay from a definition paragraph?

Now that you have a strong paragraph to define good students, how do you make a full essay from that paragraph? Try this: Connect parts of the paragraph with similar parts of an essay:

Paragraph Essay
Topic sentence Thesis statement (main idea of the essay)
Supporting details Body paragraphs
Concluding sentence Conclusion paragraph

Example definition essay

Look closely now at this example definition essay. Read closely and notice how it mirrors the definition paragraph. Then answer the questions that follow.

George Spelvin
ESOL 252 Level 7 Writing
January 1, 2023

More Than Just Grades

          The definition of a good student may not be what you think. Many people define good students as those who receive the best grades. While it is true that good students often earn high grades, I believe that grades are just one aspect of how we define a good student. In fact, even poor students can earn high grades sometimes, so grades are not the best indicator of a student’s quality. Rather, a good student pursues knowledge, actively participates in class, and maintains a positive, professional relationship with instructors and peers.

          Good students have a passion for learning that drives them to fully understand class material rather than just worry about grades. Good students are actively engaged in scholarship, which means they enjoy reading and learning about their subject matter not just because readings and assignments are required. Of course, good students will complete their homework and all assignments. They may even continue to perform research and learn more on the subject after the course ends. In some cases, good students will pursue a subject that interests them but might not be one of their strongest academic areas, so they will not earn the highest grades. Pushing oneself to try new things can be difficult, but good students will challenge themselves rather than remain at their educational comfort level for the sake of a high grade. The pursuit of learning rather than concern over grades is the sign of a good student.

         Class participation and behavior are another aspect of the definition of a good student. Simply attending class is not enough; good students arrive punctually because they understand that tardiness disrupts the class and disrespects the professors. They might occasionally arrive a few minutes early to ask the professor questions about class materials or mentally prepare for the day’s work. Good students always pay attention during class discussions and take notes; they are not checking their cell phones or daydreaming. Excellent class participation requires a balance between speaking and listening, so good students will share their views when appropriate but also respect their classmates’ views when they differ from their own. It is easy to mistake quantity of class discussion comments with quality, but good students know the difference and do not try to dominate the conversation.

          Finally, good students maintain a positive and professional relationship with their professors. They respect their instructor’s authority in the classroom as well as the instructor’s privacy outside of the classroom. Prying into a professor’s personal life is inappropriate, but attending office hours to discuss course material is an appropriate, effective way for students to demonstrate their dedication and interest in learning. Good students go to their professor’s office during posted office hours or make an appointment if necessary. While instructors can be very busy, they are usually happy to offer guidance to students during office hours; after all, availability outside the classroom is a part of their job. Maintaining positive, professional relationships with professors is especially important for those students who hope to attend graduate school and will need letters of recommendation in the future.

          Although good grades often accompany good students, grades are not the only way to indicate what it means to be a good student. The definition of a good student means demonstrating such qualities as engaging with course material, participating in class, and creating a professional relationship with professors. While every professor will have different criteria for earning an A in their course, most would agree on these characteristics for defining good students.


INSTRUCTIONS: Use the example definition essay above to answer the questions that follow.


INSTRUCTIONS: Use the information above to answer the questions that follow.

1. A definition explains what something is — or is not — by __________________.

a. translating the word into your first language

b. explaining the reasons and results of a particular action

c. discussing the pros and cons of an issue

d. identifying unique qualities or characteristics

2. A thesis statement is the main idea of the whole essay. It contains the topic and the author’s claim about the topic. In a definition essay, the thesis statement is what the author wants the reader to know (claim) about a specific word or idea (topic). True or False?

3. We usually use the __________________ verb tense when writing a formal, academic essay, such as a definition essay.

a. simple past

b. simple future

c. present progressive (sometimes called present continuous)

d. simple present

4. Imagine an essay about human rights. Match the definition strategy with its example.

A. _____ The United Nations has identified 30 universal human rights, such as the freedom from torture, the freedom of expression, and the freedom from slavery.   1. formal definition
B. _____ universal freedoms   2. synonym
C. _____ According to the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary, human rights are “the basic rights that every person should have, such as justice and the freedom to say what you think.”   3. description
D. _____ Human rights are ideas about the liberties and conditions that all human beings deserve, regardless of their culture, country, religion, etc.   4. etymology
E. _____ The origin of the word “right” — meaning something that is morally correct, not the opposite of left — comes from Old English “riht” with the ideas of justice and fairness.   5. illustration
F. _____ Unlike the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, human rights extend beyond our country’s borders.   6. process
G. _____ There have been many developments in the concept of human rights throughout history, as far back as ancient Greeks and as modern as today’s news. First …   7. compare/contrast
H. _____ Human rights are not something that is granted or earned; they are not something that can be bought or sold.   8. negation

5. Match the purpose and its example.

A. _____ The idea of human rights is that every person around the world deserves the same basic conditions for existence. 1. convey useful information
B. _____ According to Macmillan Dictionary, human rights are “the rights that everyone should have in a society, including the right to express opinions about the government or to have protection from harm.” 2. explain our perspective or ideas
C. _____ Laura had a dream to be a doctor, but discrimination against women didn’t allow her to go to school. This is the dramatic story of how she found success against all odds. 3. demonstrate that we understand the meaning
D. _____ Human rights is not just about freedom; it’s about respect. 4. entertain
E. _____ In my opinion, human rights should be more than just an idea; they should be the law. 5. argue, challenge, or extend a definition





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