The Definition Essay

Learn how to write a definition essay here:

Definitions may be classified as three types: short, stipulative, or extended.

short: A short definition explains a word by a brief identification of its meaning. (This is the kind of definition that dictionaries provide.)

stipulative: Stipulative definitions identify the particular meaning you intend to use in your writing. (For example, the word liberal often has various connotations.)

extended: These definitions may include both short and stipulative definitions, but they go far beyond both. They are essentially essays that seek to explain the writer's view of a subject, something that cannot be done effectively in a short definition. An extended definition may begin with a dictionary definition, but it goes on to add to, modify, and illustrate that definition. In so doing, it may use any of the patterns of development discussed earlier in this class: it may compare or contrast one meaning with another; it may provide descriptive or illustrative examples; it may show cause and effect.

Definition Essay Process

Complete the following steps in the process of collecting details for your definition essay:

1. Select a word that you plan to investigate. The word should have some interest, importance, or meaning to you personally. Example: Laughter

2. Begin by writing down a few simple statements about your word: "Laughter is ......"

3. Now record the word's dictionary definition:

4. Classify your word:

Part of Speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb

General Type: character trait, political term, value, religion, literary term, etc.


5. In a thesaurus, discover words that have similar meanings.

6. Differentiate:

7. Identify at least two extended examples which illustrate the word.

8. After your research, determine a particular thesis or main idea about your word.

Grading Scale for

Extended Definition Essay

(Below 60) Level 1 These compositions only mention the term or vaguely discuss the concept without even minimally defining it.

(60-69) Level 2 Compositions in this group state the terms to be defined, identify a class to which the term belongs, and give some differentiating details. The details are generally not elaborated examples, synonyms, or description.

(70-79) Level 3 These compositions put the term in a class and provide differences. They also give some criteria (standards or tests on which a judgment can be based) to define the term and contain a few examples. The criteria are general, superficial, or unclearly stated, and the examples often are not clearly related to the criteria.

(80-89) Level 4 Besides classifying and differentiating, compositions in this group contain several specific criteria that identify the term and examples that explain and elaborate these criteria.

(90-100) Level 5 These compositions contain the characteristics of level 4, but they are more sophisticated because they also contain elaborate criteria and examples that focus on distinguishing the term from other closely related terms or concepts. Criteria and examples deal with the grey area and borderline cases in order to clarify the limits of the definition. Criteria are clarified through examples followed by a contrasting example.



List of Works Consulted

Return to our Advanced Composition page to find more information on writing.

If you have comments or suggestions, email me at