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Single-Sentence Definitions
The Definition Paragraph
To define is to explain clearly what a word or term means.
As you write, you will sometimes find it necessary to explain words or terms
that you suspect your reader may not know. For example, net profit is the profit remaining after all deductions have been taken; a bonsai is a dwarfed, ornamentally
shaped tree. Such terms can often be defined in just a few carefully chosen words.
However, other terms—like courage, racism, or a good marriage—are more difficult
to define. They will test your ability to explain them clearly so that your reader
knows exactly what you mean when you use them in your writing. They may require an entire paragraph for a complete and thorough definition.
In this chapter, you will learn to write one-sentence definitions and then
whole paragraphs of definition. The skill of defining clearly will be useful in such
courses as psychology, business, the sciences, history, and English.
Part A
Single-Sentence Definitions
There are many ways to define a word or term. Three basic ways are definition
by synonym, definition by class, and definition by negation.
Definition by Synonym
The simplest way to define a term is to supply a synonym, a word that means the
same thing. A good synonym definition always uses an easier and more familiar
word than the one being defined.
1. Gregarious means sociable.
2. To procrastinate means to postpone needlessly.
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3. A wraith is a ghost or phantom.
4. Adroitly means skillfully.
Although you may not have known the words gregarious, procrastination, wraith,
and adroitly before, the synonym definitions make it very clear what they mean.
A synonym should usually be the same part of speech as the word being defined, so it could be used as a substitute. Gregarious and sociable are both adjectives; to procrastinate and to postpone are verb forms; wraith, ghost, and phantom are
nouns; adroitly and skillfully are adverbs.
5. Quarterback Payton Manning adroitly moved his team up the field.
6. Quarterback Payton Manning skillfully moved his team up the field.
In this sentence skillfully can be substituted for adroitly.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to come up with a good synonym
Definition by Class
The class definition is the one most often required in college and formal writing—
in examinations, papers, and reports.
The class definition has two parts. First, the writer places the word to be defined into the larger category, or class, to which it belongs.
7. Lemonade is a drink . . .
8. An orphan is a child . . .
9. A dictatorship is a form of government . . .
Second, the writer provides the distinguishing characteristics or details that
make this person, object, or idea different from all others in that category. What the
reader wants to know is what kind of drink is lemonade? What specific type of
child is an orphan? What particular form of government is a dictatorship?
10. Lemonade is a drink made of lemons, sugar, and water.
11. An orphan is a child without living parents.
12. A dictatorship is a form of government in which one person has absolute
control over his or her subjects.
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Developing the Paragraph
Here is a class definition for
the action pictured: A slamdunk is a basket that is
scored when the shooter
leaps high, forcefully
throwing the basketball
through the rim from above.
Think of class definitions as if they were in chart form:
Distinguishing Facts
or Details
Category or Class
made of lemons, sugar,
and water
without living parents
form of government
one person has absolute
control over his or her
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When you write a class definition, be careful not to place the word or term in
too broad or vague a category. For instance, saying that lemonade is a food or that
an orphan is a person will make your job of zeroing in on a distinguishing detail
more difficult.
Besides making the category or class as limited as possible, be sure to make
your distinguishing facts as specific and exact as you can. Saying that lemonade is
a drink made with water or that an orphan is a child who has lost family members is
not specific enough to give your reader an accurate definition.
Definition by Negation
A definition by negation means that the writer first says what something is not,
and then says what it is.
13. A good parent does not just feed and clothe a child but loves, accepts,
and supports that child for who he or she is.
14. College is not just a place to have a good time but a place to grow intellectually and emotionally.
15. Liberty does not mean having the right to do whatever you please
but carries the obligation to respect the rights of others.
Definitions by negation are extremely helpful when you think that the reader
has a preconceived idea about the word you wish to define. You say that it is not
what the reader thought, but that it is something else entirely.
Here is a definition by
negation: The fax machine
is not the revolutionary new
office machine that people
think but an invention
patented in 1863 and used
to send words and pictures
between the United States
and France.
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Developing the Paragraph
Write a one-sentence definition by synonym for each of the following terms. Remember, the synonym should be more familiar than the term being defined.
1. irate:
2. to elude:
3. pragmatic:
4. fiasco:
5. elated:
Here are five class definitions. Circle the category and underline the distinguishing characteristics in each. You may find it helpful to make a chart.
1. A haiku is a Japanese poem that has seventeen syllables.
2. A homer is a referee who unconsciously favors the home team.
3. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who specializes in diseases of the eye.
4. The tango is a ballroom dance that originated in Latin America and is in 2/4 or
4/4 time.
5. Plagiarism is stealing writing or ideas that are not one’s own.
Define the following words by class definition. You may find it helpful to use
this form: “A
is a
(class or category)
(distinguishing characteristic)
1. hamburger:
2. bikini:
3. snob:
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4. mentor:
5. adolescence:
Write a one-sentence definition by negation for each of the following terms. First
say what each term is not; then say what it is.
1. hero:
2. final exam:
3. self-esteem:
4. intelligence:
5. freedom of speech:
Part B
The Definition Paragraph
Sometimes a single-sentence definition may not be enough to define a word or
term adequately. In such cases, the writer may need an entire paragraph in which
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Developing the Paragraph
he or she develops the definition by means of examples, descriptions, comparisons, contrasts, and so forth.
Topic Sentence
The topic sentence of a definition paragraph is often one of the single-sentence
definitions discussed in Part A: definition by synonym, definition by class, definition by negation.
Here is the topic sentence of a definition paragraph:
A flashbulb memory can be defined as a vivid, long-lasting memory
that is formed at the moment a person learns of a highly emotional
What kind of definition does the topic sentence use?
To what larger category or class does a flashbulb memory belong?
What are the distinguishing details about a flashbulb memory that make it different from other kinds of memories?
Paragraph and Plan
Here is the entire paragraph:
A flashbulb memory can be defined as a vivid and long-lasting memory formed at the moment a person experiences a highly emotional
event. It is as though a mental flashbulb pops, preserving the moment in
great detail. Although flashbulb memories can be personal, they often
are triggered by public events. For example, many older Americans recall exactly what they were doing when they learned that Pearl Harbor
was bombed in 1941. Time froze as people crowded around their radios
to find out what would happen next. Many more people recall in detail
the shocking moment on November 11, 1963 when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Considered the most
widely shared flashbulb memory of our time, the image of Kennedy’s
death is burned into the minds of people the world over. More recently,
the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center became a flashbulb memory for millions. Whether they heard the terrible news on their morning
commute or were awakened by a panicked voice on the phone telling
them to turn on the television, research into memory suggests that they
will never forget that day. As these examples show, flashbulb memories
mark some of our most permanent and haunting experiences, moments
that were scored into our hearts.
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One effective way for a writer to develop the body of a definition paragraph is
to provide examples.*
What three examples does this writer give to develop the definition in the topic
By repeating the word being defined—or a form of it—in the context of the definition paragraph, the writer helps the reader understand the definition better:
“Although flashbulb memories can be personal . . . ,” “Considered the most
widely shared flashbulb memory of our time . . . ,” “. . . on the World Trade Center became a flashbulb memory for millions.”
Before writing the paragraph, the writer probably brainstormed or freewrote to
gather ideas and then made an outline or plan like this:
Topic sentence: A flashbulb memory is a vivid and long-lasting memory formed
at the moment a person experiences a highly emotional event.
Example 1:
Pearl Harbor
—older Americans recall what they were doing in 1941
—people crowded around radios
Example 2:
J. F. Kennedy’s assassination
—most widely shared flashbulb memory of our time
—image of Kennedy’s death burned into minds all over
the world
Example 3:
World Trade Center attack
—more recent flashbulb memory for millions
—whether on morning commute or phone, will never
Conclusion: Flashbulb memories mark our most permanent and haunting
Note that each example in the body of the paragraph clearly relates to the definition in the topic sentence.
Although examples are an excellent way to develop a definition paragraph,
other methods of development are also possible. For instance, you might compare
and contrast† love and lust, assertiveness and aggressiveness, or the leader and the
follower. You could also combine definition and persuasion.‡ Such a paragraph
might begin College is a dating service or Alcoholism is not a moral weakness but a disease. The rest of the paragraph would have to persuade readers that this definition
is valid.
*For more work on examples, see Chapter 5, “Illustration.”
†For more work on contrast, see Chapter 10, “Comparison and Contrast.”
‡For more work on persuasion, see Chapter 13, “Persuasion.”
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Developing the Paragraph
There are no transitional expressions used specifically for definition paragraphs. Sometimes phrases like can be defined as or can be considered or means that
can help alert the reader that a definition paragraph will follow.*
Here cartoonist Gary Larson takes a somewhat lighter look at flashbulb
Read the following paragraph carefully and then answer the questions.
A feminist is not a man-hater, a masculine woman, a demanding shrew, or
someone who dislikes housewives. A feminist is simply a woman or man who believes that women should enjoy the same rights, privileges, opportunities, and
pay as men. Because society has deprived women of many equal rights, feminists
have fought for equality. For instance, Susan B. Anthony, a famous nineteenthcentury feminist, worked to get women the right to vote. Today, feminists want
women to receive equal pay for equal work. They support a woman’s right to
pursue her goals and dreams, whether she wants to be an astronaut, athlete,
banker, or full-time homemaker. On the home front, feminists believe that two
partners who work should equally share the housework and child care. Because
the term is often misunderstood, some people don’t call themselves feminists
even though they share feminist values. But courageous feminists of both sexes
continue to speak out for equality.
*For an entire essay developed by definition, see “Winning,” Chapter 15, Part E.
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1. The definition here spans two sentences. What kind of definition does the
writer use in sentence 1?
2. What kind of definition appears in sentence 2?
3. The paragraph is developed by describing some key beliefs of feminists.
What are these?
4. Which point is supported by an example?
5. Make a plan or an outline of the paragraph.
Read the following paragraphs and answer the questions.
Induction is reasoning from particular cases to general principles; that is, the
scientific method: you look at a number of examples, then come to a general conclusion based on the evidence. For instance, having known twenty-five people
named Glenn, all of whom were men, you might naturally conclude, through induction, that all people named Glenn are men. The problem with inductive reasoning here, however, is Glenn Close, the movie actress.
Deduction is reasoning from the general to the particular. One starts from
a statement known or merely assumed to be true and uses it to come to a conclusion about the matter at hand. Once you know that all people have to die
sometime and that you are a person, you can logically deduce that you, too, will
have to die sometime.
—Judy Jones and William Wilson, “100 Things Every
College Graduate Should Know,” Esquire
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Developing the Paragraph
1. What two terms are defined?
2. What kind of definition is used in both topic sentences?
3. In what larger category do the writers place both induction and deduction?
4. What example of induction do the writers give?
5 What example shows the problem with induction?
6. What example of deduction do the writers give?
Here are some topic sentences for definition paragraphs. Choose one that interests
you and make a plan for a paragraph, using whatever method of development
seems appropriate.
1. An optimist is someone who usually expects the best from life and from people.
2. Prejudice means prejudging people on the basis of race, creed, age, or sex—
not on their merits as individuals.
3. A wealthy person does not necessarily have money and possessions, but he or
she might possess inner wealth—a loving heart and a creative mind.
4. Registration is a ritual torture that students must go through before they can
attend their classes.
5. Bravery and bravado are very different character traits.
PRACTICE 8 Thinking and Writing Together
Define a Team Player
Whether or not we play sports, most of us know what it means to be a team player
on a basketball or soccer team. But these days, many employers also want to hire
“team players.” What, exactly, are they looking for? What qualities does a team
player bring to the job?
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In a group with four or five classmates, discuss the meaning of team player,
listing all the qualities that you think a team player has. List at least eight qualities. Now craft a topic sentence of definition; have a group member write it down,
using the form, “A team player is a/an
Choose the three or four most important qualities and write a paragraph defining
team player. Use examples or details to bring your paragraph to life. Be prepared to
share your paragraph with the full class.
Exploring Online Take the team player quiz;
write about your results. Resources for “Surviving
the Group Project”
✔ Checklist
The Process of Writing a Definition Paragraph
Refer to this checklist of steps as you write a definition paragraph of
your own.
1. Narrow the topic in light of your audience and purpose.
2. Compose a topic sentence that uses one of the three basic methods
of definition discussed in this chapter: synonym, class, or negation.
3. Decide on the method of paragraph development that is best
suited to what you want to say.
4. Freewrite or brainstorm to generate ideas that may be useful in
your definition paragraph. (You may want to freewrite or brainstorm before you narrow the topic.)
5. Select the best ideas and drop any ideas that do not clearly relate to
the definition in your topic sentence.
6. Make a plan or an outline for your paragraph, numbering the ideas
in the order in which you will present them.
7. Write a draft of your definition paragraph, using transitional expressions wherever they might be helpful.
8. Revise as necessary, checking for support, unity, logic, and
9. Proofread for errors in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure,
spelling, and mechanics.
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Developing the Paragraph
Suggested Topics for Definition Paragraphs
1. A self-starter
2. The loner (or life of the party, perfectionist, big mouth, Internet addict)
3. Country and western music (or rock, gospel, Celtic, or some other type of
4. A term from popular culture (email spam, sampling in music, Spanglish, and
so on)
5. A dead-end job
6. A good marriage (or a good partner, parent, or friend)
7. The racing-car (or fashion, football, shopping, computer-game, or other) fanatic
8. An interesting term you know from reading (placebo, UFO, apartheid, surrealism, and so forth)
9. Spring break
10. A racist (terrorist, sexist, artist, philanthropist, or other -ist)
11. The night person (or morning person)
12. Integrity
13. A technical term you know from work or a hobby
14. A slang term you or your friends use
15. Writer’s choice:
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