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Defining the Terms in an Essay

Students completing various written assignments for high school, college, or university often need to provide some definitions in them. While the writer may be well versed in the topic and use a myriad of terms with ease, the target audience can face certain discomfort or challenge. Thus, it is important to be able to define the terminology essential for the discussion. Copy-pasted definitions from the dictionary may look somewhat awkward in an essay. Besides, there is a risk of being accused of plagiarism. Therefore, you must be good at rephrasing accurately, without distorting the main meaning. Moreover, a definition must be provided timely and integrated into the discussion logically and adequately.

Why Do You Need Definitions?

The primary aim of providing definitions in the paper or essay is to avoid misunderstandings and deliver your message to the audience effectively. Normally, they should contain as much information as possible to make the concept, term, or phenomenon clear to the reader. At the same time, it should be concise, take minimum space, and be devoid of any excessive details.

Components of a Definition

A definition is normally comprised of three formal parts:

  • A term
  • Classification
  • Differentiating features

The term may be one word (e.g.: skyscraper) or a phrase (e.g.: human resource management). Classification indicates the category of the object or concept the term falls under. For example, a skyscraper is a building and human resource management is a strategic approach. Finally, differentiating features are all the characteristics of the term that differentiate it from others in its category or group.

When Definitions Are Used?

No need to mention that not all the words or terms should be defined in the essay or paper. Firstly, the majority of them are well-known to the reader. Secondly, not all of them need to be described in detail for specific paper purposes. That is why it is imperative to think reasonably and decide which terms should be defined and for what reason.

To start with, figure out if the word or phrase is unusual for an average reader so that it could require a definition. Next, determine if it is vital for your discussion and whether its meaning must be explained for better comprehension of the topic. Of course, it may be necessary to define all the technical terms and professional jargon, but do not go to extremes and mind the subject of an essay or a paper. Here are some cases when the definition may be significantly important:

  • If you use a term that is crucial for the discussion, and the audience’s understanding of the topic depends on it but it is most likely unfamiliar to them, you need to define it.
  • Define the words or phrases that bear some sort of subjectivity or may be perceived by the readers from a different perspective than intended by the discussion.
  • Words and phrases with specific etymology that can help to deepen or broaden the discussion must also be defined.

How to Define?

Rephrasing the formal definition found in a dictionary and explaining it in your own words is the best tactic. First of all, scientific definitions may be too awkward and complicated, filled with even more incomprehensible technical terms, confusing the readers even further. Since you know your target audience, you can pick up better words to explain the concept the way they will understand it. Secondly, these dictionary definitions may be too long. Thus, presenting them word-for-word as a direct quotation in your paper will steal the valuable space that could be used for presenting more important information, especially in cases of limited word count. Lastly, many instructors and professors do not like direct quotations and may even lower the marks for their excessive usage.

However, you should never forget to cite. Even if you rephrase, it does not mean that the definition belongs to you since it was borrowed from some dictionary or textbook. Therefore, you are obliged to give credit to its author. Clarify which formatting style should be applied in the paper or essay you are writing and provide accurate bibliographic entry and corresponding in-text citations for the used source of information by the required format standards. Such a move will save you from plagiarism accusations.

It is not a very good idea to provide definitions in the introductory paragraph. This part of a paper is aimed at grabbing the readers’ attention, setting the context for the discussion, and announcing your main argument, which is a thesis statement. It is not intended for long explanations of the terms. All the definitions must be placed in the body paragraphs of the paper or essay. If you think that you cannot provide the background information without using some terms, it is not a problem if you do. But if the concern is that these terms in the introduction will not make sense without defining them, try to use synonyms instead.

Definitions must be concise, fitting one brief sentence. All the accompanying explanations and additional shades of meaning can be provided in the subsequent sentences. Still, do your best to keep away from excessive details that do not serve a purpose. The entire explanation of the term should not disrupt the flow of your writing. Instead, it must add clarity and credibility.

Similarly, it is not the best idea to use too sophisticated and specific words in the definitions. This way, you will need to add more definitions to explain them. The words you use to define the terms in your papers must be simple and familiar to the reader. That is your main aim: to facilitate the audience’s understanding.

Lastly, remember that terms cannot be defined by the location or time. Hence, never use phrases like “it is when” or “it is where” in your definitions. A noun must come after the verb in the place of class. Thus, instead of “Chair is where you sit” write “Chair is a piece of furniture”. Besides, repeating or restating the defined word or phrase makes a very poor definition. Remember that it must be meaningful and clear for the audience.

Our online paper writing service is always glad to offer our help with any kind of academic writing. If you need more tips on writing definitions or arranging your essays, do not hesitate to ask.