Definitional Argument Essay

Your proposal and assignment:

Sample (professional, not academic) argument:

For a definitional essay, you need to write an argument that a borderline or contested case fits (or does not fit) within a particular category by classifying that particular case and defining the category.
Definitional arguments require a definition of key terms:
  • Example: Joe is too bossy.
  • Define “bossy” and provide examples of his bossy attitude (poor listening skills, shouting at people, making decisions without asking committee—these are what define “bossy” in your argument.
  • Example: Low-carb diets are dangerous.
  • Define what constitutes “low-carb” and define what you mean by “dangerous.” Cite studies showing harmful effects, how substances affect the body, etc.

Criteria-Match Structure:
  • The criteria section of your argument explains and illustrates your criteria.
  • The match section of your argument persuades the reader that your example meets those criteria.
  • Example: Although the Hercules Shoe Company is nonpolluting and provides a socially useful product, [CLAIM] it is not a socially responsible company [BECAUSE CLAUSE] because it treats its workers unjustly.
  • Criteria Part: What points must be met for a company to be deemed “socially responsible”?
  • (1) Research how others have defined your term (dictionaries, judicial opinions, expert testimony, etc.
  • (2) Use your own critical thinking to make your own extended definition.
  • Match Part: In what ways does the shoe company meet those points?
  • (1) Supply examples of how this and other situations meet your criteria.
  • (2) Give other evidence about how your example meets your criteria.

Choose a topic:

  1. Topic is a question about a definition of a term or its category
  2. The question must be arguable
  3. Avoid poor topics: topics that are too extensive or aren't arguable

  • i. questions that can be answered by looking at a dictionary or other reference make poor topics. No one is going to argue that an elephant is a pachyderm.

  • ii. papers about the definition of love or friendship tend to be weak because people are used to thinking of their characteristics a matter of personal rather than public preference.

  • iii. "Abortion is murder" is a definition argument, but you can't address the definition of life and the definition of murder in the page length you have available to you. Stay away from these clichéd topics. Stick with arguments that people are likely to disagree about or have never thought of but still can be persuaded by.

  • iv. Avoid defining something only as "good" or "bad." That is an evaluation argument and not necessarily a definition argument. Whether the category is good or bad can be what's at stake, but it shouldn’t be the only argument.

  • Example: "Sweatshop labor is bad" is a poor topic, but "Sweatshop labor is slavery" is a good topic choice. Whether you define sweatshop labor as slavery or not will certainly matter. People already feel that is bad, so if you can convince people that sweatshop labor is slavery, you've won your definition argument and people will hopefully disapprove of sweatshop labor as they disapprove of slavery.

For your Definitional Argument Essay:
  • (1) introduce the issue and state the claim
  • (2) define key terms
  • (3) present your first criterion and argument that your case meets your definition
  • (4) present your second criterion and argument that your case meets your definition
  • (5) present your third criterion and argument that your case meets your definition (if necessary)
  • (6) anticipate and respond to possible objections/arguments
  • (7) conclude with return to the “big picture,” what is at stake, why your argument is important, etc.