A Definition essay will share your special understanding about some idea or thing. Sometimes a definition will prove to be a small but important part of an essay; sometimes a definition will be the sole work of an entire essay. When it's the major impetus of an essay, there are several points to remember.

First, don't rely on that old cliché of the dictionary or encyclopedia definition. Even if your intent is to show how inadequate or wrong-headed the dictionary might be, this device has been used far too often to be effective. The point of your essay is to provide your reader with a new way of looking at things — your way, not Noah Webster's.

One way of defining something is to say what it is not. If you're defining the idea of "home," you could begin by suggesting that the old saying "There's no place like home" is silly because there are, in fact, many places like home — or you could insist that home is really not a place at all. The opportunity to define is an opportunity to exercise your poetic imagination, to show how most people's sense of something is faulty or inadequate and that there is a better understanding (yours!) to consider.

In selecting a topic to define, look for something that you can define within your own experience and that will allow your poetic imagination some room to play. It might be a big mistake for your English instructor to define reggae or rap music, but there are many students who could do a great job. If you try to define something that is beyond the comprehension of your paper or your own experience, the task will become overwhelming and get mired down in details or abstractions. You could write a book trying to define a concept such as conservatism or liberalism and you still wouldn't have said anything that more than two other people would agree with. Students would be wise to avoid abstract notions such as patriotism, beauty, justice, love, or being a good sport.

On the other hand, it can be useful — even fun — to take a rather abstract notion and put a spin on it. There doesn't appear to be much point in defining a student, for example, but defining what we mean by a good student could be interesting. Push that definition to the limit to make a special point. A good student is not necessarily one that earns good grades or even one that does his or her best; a good student is one that makes the teacher feel like a good teacher. Or try defining a good teacher, a good parent, a good doctor, a good lover. In any case, if you are going to define something that everyone else has some idea about, you will need to shed fresh, even surprising light upon your subject.

A definition can be developed in a number of ways. A definition of a business management concept such as Total Quality Management (TQM), for instance, could begin with a history (a kind of process paper) of its inception in Japanese management systems, its migration across the Pacific, its implementation and transformation in American systems, and its predicted demise. It could also (or instead) include examples of the kind of labor conflict that TQM is supposed to eliminate or alleviate. Or it could describe TQM as a process, the steps involved in its implementation, or involve an analysis of its principles and its place in management theory. Contrasts to other management theories might be appropriate, demonstrating what TQM is not as well as what it is. We could even think of it as a Cause and Effect situation in which we describe how TQM responds to certain needs in the workplace. A definition essay is not limited to any one method of development and it may, in fact, employ more than one method at once.

Some rhetorical points about defining things:

The following essay, written by student Doobie Weiser and used with his permission, attempts to define the idea of being a Yankee. Before writing an essay like this, you might first try doing an exercise in freewriting or clustering.

What is a Yankee?

To most of the world, a Yankee is an American, anybody who lives in the United States. It is not always a pleasant connotation; in fact, "Yankee, go home!" calls up images of angry Latin American mobs protesting the oppression of American imperialist policies.

To most Americans, though, the word Yankee means either the pin-striped New York baseball team or the Northern forces in the American Civil War, the soldiers from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In time, though, the idea that the word Yankee suggests has shrunk geographically until it is on the verge of extinction.

Perhaps the most famous Yankee of all (no offense to the musical Damn Yankees! intended) has star billing in Mark Twain's novel Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I have lived most of my life, now, in that southern New England state, and I can assure you there are precious few real Yankees around. Real Yankees might have lived in Connecticut at one time, but now they are from another place and perhaps another time. As television and other forms of mass media invade our homes and tend to diminish regional differences, to make Americans more and more homogeneous, the Yankee might be one of the first genuine American characters to disappear.

A neighbor of mine claims he knows what a real Yankee is all about. Years ago, he says, he lived next door to one. It seems his plumbing was acting up and he'd actually removed the toilet from the floor and taken it out into the backyard to do some surgery on it. Now he knew that his neighbor, who happened to be a professional plumber as well as the putative Yankee, was well aware of the fact that he was struggling to fix his toilet and he knew that his neighbor was home, doing nothing in particular that day, probably watching from the kitchen window. But would he come over and offer to help? No way. But when my friend finally gave up and went over and asked for assistance, the plumber-neighbor not only agreed to help, he did so gleefully. He spent the entire afternoon finding and fixing the problem and helping to return the toilet to its proper place. And wouldn't accept a dime, of course.

According to my friend, that's the first tenet of Yankee-ness. You must never offer help because that makes the person to whom you have proferred assistance "beholden" to you. And a Yankee must never be "beholden" to anyone. (That's how the word for this concept is said, and so we must spell it that way, too.) To be beholden means that you owe something to someone else. Now everyone in the world can owe something to the Yankee, but the Yankee must never owe anyone else anything, and he can't really understand someone who would be willing to be beholden. Thus he will not offer help — oh, maybe in a real emergency, he would be as good a Samaritan as anyone else — until asked. When asked, it's another story. You will get more help than you can imagine, help in great abundance, more than you could ever deserve or pay back. So it's not that Yankees are stingy; on the contrary, a Yankee is generous to a fault. But there is a sense of reserve that prohibits the true Yankee from offering help before being asked. The sense of inviolate space is paramount: "Good fences make good neighbors," says the neighbor in Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," and the Yankee will not cross the fence until asked.

Another friend of mine knows someone, a Yankee, a chap born so far north in Vermont that he's nearly Canadian, who comes over to help with his taxes ever year. To re-pay him, my friend must resort to trickery, leaving something on the doorstep in the middle of the night. To offer anything else, up front, might tip the beholden scales in his favor and that would be risky.

That's what I think defines this dying breed of the American Yankee: an extraordinary sense of balance and reserve, a holding off — and yet, behind all that reserve, a reservoir of generosity and friendliness that can be nearly overwhelming.


Points to Ponder:

  • Are there any fresh ideas enlisted in this definition? How would you have defined this idea? Are there ideas similar to it that you could choose to define?
  • WebCT FeedbackFeedback Form for WebCT Students: Click icon to the left for a form on which you can record your understanding of this material. (Password protected.)
  • There are allusions here: (1) to the musical Damn Yankees!, (2) to the Bible (the parable of the Good Samaritan), and (3) to a poem by Robert Frost. Do these allusions add anything to the essay or to your understanding of things? What if you didn't "get" the allusions?
  • What techniques of development does the essay use in the process of definition? Do you think the writer dwelt too long on what a Yankee is not before moving on to what a Yankee is?
  • Can you point to one sentence that functions as thesis statement in this essay?