Definitional Arguments
[X is (is not) a Y]

Categorical arguments are among the most common argument types you will encounter. They occur whenever you claim that any given X belongs in category Y.

  • Does skateboarding belong in the category “true sports”?

  • Should Karate Kid X be rated PG-13 or R?

  • Is graffiti “art” or “vandalism”?

There are two kinds of categorical arguments:
a. Simple categorical arguments in which the writer and an audience agree on the meaning of the Y term
b. Definitional arguments in which the meaning of the Y term is itself controversial.

Simple Categorical Arguments

A categorical argument can be said to be “simple” if there is no disagreement about the meaning of the Y term. The basic procedural rule for developing a simple categorical claim is to supply examples and other data that show how X is (or is not) a member of category Y.

Often simple categorical claims look like facts. A fact is a statement that can be verified in some way, either by empirical observation or by reference to a reliable source: Water freezes at 32 degrees. But a simple categorical claim is a contestable interpretation of facts.

F: The bald eagle is no longer on the EPA’s list of endangered species. (no room for argument)
C: The bald eagle is no longer an endangered species. (room for argument)

The basic tactic: support by examples

An arguable claim about the nature of things can often be thought of as a generalization that summarizes a collection of particular instances. Thus, you can support such a claim by bringing one or more of those particulars to your reader’s attention.

Kinds of examples:

  • Particular examples: These describe situations, events, or objects connected with one time, one place, or one person.

  • Iterative examples: often happens or repeats

  • Hypothetical examples: a fictional, imaginary example. The arguer makes it up and therefore has the luxury of creating details and outcomes that support a claim perfectly.

Definitional Arguments

Definitional arguments are arguments in which the meaning of the key term is disputed.

Definitional arguments usually have a two-part structure—a "criteria" part that tries to establish the meaning of the Y term and a “match” part that argues whether a given X meets the definition.

We use the term criteria-match to describe this structure.

Examples of definitional arguments:

  • Cheerleading is a sport.

  • Friendly’s is a good, family restaurant.

  • Ty Cobb is the best baseball player of all time.

  • Gladwell’s theories in Blink are scientific.

  • Spanking is not child abuse.

  • John Lennon should be considered a significant political figure.

Organizing a definitional argument

1. Introduce the issue by showing disagreements about the definition of a key term or about its application to a problematic case

2. State your claim

3. Present your definition of the key term:

a. state and explain the significance of criterion 1
b. state and explain the significance of criterion 2
c. etc.
4. Summarize and respond to possible objections to your definition

5. Support your claim about the contested case
a. Explain how your case [X] matches criterion 1
b. Explain how your case [X] matches criterion 2
c. etc.

6. Summarize and respond to possible objections to your match argument

7. Conclude your argument

  • Will the opposing side argue that my criteria are not the right ones? Opposition may decide that your criteria are only accidental and not necessary or sufficient for your definition. Or they might argue that different criteria are needed or that one crucial to your definition has been left out.
  • Will my opposition call my definition into question by bringing up possible undesirable consequences that might result from acceptance of my criteria?
  • Will the opposition bring up extraordinary circumstances that might weaken my argument or borderline cases that I might have ignored?
  • Will the opposition find my definition, and, thereby, my argument, too obviously biased? Have I provided a fair-minded argument?

  • Will the opposition feel that my examples are too old to address the topic properly, too specific for the topic, or completely unrepresentative of the topic?
  • Will the opposition find my examples are not accurately portrayed?
  • Will the opposition find my examples represent cases that are too extreme on one side or the other?
  • Will the opposition argue that there are contrastive examples, which I did not include in my discussion, that alter my case drastically?

Things to include in your definition essay:

  • Importance of defining or redefining word/concept
  • The definition itself:Class/category of word/concept
  • Differentiation of word/concept from other words/concepts similar to it or in opposition to it
  • Criteria for judgment of whether the word or concept meets the definition or not
  • Weighting by importance of the criteria
  • Warrants and backing for class/category, differentiation, criteria and weighting choices
  • Thesis: X is/is not Y because it either meets or does not meet the reasons, criteria

  • Discussion and explanation of criteria with examples, counterexamples, and borderline examples,
  • showing how X fits or does not fit the criteria,
  • and therefore the definition as you have set it up in the introduction

  • Reiterate the central thesis or research question that guided your argument.
  • This is the final chance to persuade the reader.
  • Reflect on the significance of your argument; underscore the importance of your argument.
  • How does your argument add to, change, question, modify, etc. the previous understanding of this topic?