Darn Good Definition Essay

The Definition Essay


A definition essay will share your special understanding about some idea or thing. Sometimes a definition will prove to be a small but important part of an essay; sometimes a definition will be the sole work of an entire essay. When it’s the major impetus of an essay, there are several points to remember.

First, don’t rely on that old cliché of the dictionary or encyclopedia definition. Even if your intent is to show how inadequate or wrong-headed the dictionary might be, this device has been used far too often to be effective. The point of your essay is to provide your reader with a new way of looking at things — your way, not Noah Webster’s.

One way of defining something is to say what it is not. If you’re defining the idea of “home,” you could begin by suggesting that the old saying “There’s no place like home” is silly because there are, in fact, many places like home — or you could insist that home is really not a place at all. The opportunity to define is an opportunity to exercise your poetic imagination, to show how most people’s sense of something is faulty or inadequate and that there is a better understanding (yours!) to consider.

In selecting a topic to define, look for something that you can define within your own experience and that will allow your poetic imagination some room to play. It might be a big mistake for your English instructor to define reggae or rap music, but there are many students who could do a great job. If you try to define something that is beyond the comprehension of your paper or your own experience, the task will become overwhelming and get mired down in details or abstractions. You could write a book trying to define a concept such as conservatism or liberalism and you still wouldn’t have said anything that more than two other people would agree with. Students would be wise to avoid abstract notions such as patriotism, beauty, justice, love, or being a good sport.

On the other hand, it can be useful — even fun — to take a rather abstract notion and put a spin on it. There doesn’t appear to be much point in defining a student, for example, but defining what we mean by a good student could be interesting. Push that definition to the limit to make a special point. A good student is not necessarily one that earns good grades or even one that does his or her best; a good student is one that makes the teacher feel like a good teacher. Or try defining a good teacher, a good parent, a good doctor, a good lover. In any case, if you are going to define something that everyone else has some idea about, you will need to shed fresh, even surprising light upon your subject.

A definition can be developed in a number of ways. A definition of a business management concept such as Total Quality Management (TQM), for instance, could begin with a history (a kind of process paper) of its inception in Japanese management systems, its migration across the Pacific, its implementation and transformation in American systems, and its predicted demise. It could also (or instead) include examples of the kind of labor conflict that TQM is supposed to eliminate or alleviate. Or it could describe TQM as a process, the steps involved in its implementation, or involve an analysis of its principles and its place in management theory. Contrasts to other management theories might be appropriate, demonstrating what TQM is not as well as what it is. We could even think of it as a Cause and Effect situation in which we describe how TQM responds to certain needs in the workplace. A definition essay is not limited to any one method of development and it may, in fact, employ more than one method at once.

Some rhetorical points about defining things:

  • Avoid using the phrases “is where” and “is when” in your definition: “Total Quality Management is when management and labor agree to. . . .” “A computer virus is where . . . .”
  • Avoid circular definitions (repeating the defined term within the predicate, the definition itself): “A computer virus is a virus that destroys or disrupts software . . . .”
  • Avoid using a too narrow definition, one that would unduly limit the scope of your paper: “Reggae music is sung on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. . . .”



The following essay, written by student Doobie Weiser and used with his permission, attempts to define the idea of being a Yankee. Before writing an essay like this, you might first try doing an exercise in freewriting or clustering.

What is a Yankee?

To most of the world, a Yankee is an American, anybody who lives in the United States. It is not always a pleasant connotation; in fact, “Yankee, go home!” calls up images of angry Latin American mobs protesting the oppression of American imperialist policies.

To most Americans, though, the word Yankee means either the pin-striped New York baseball team or the Northern forces in the American Civil War, the soldiers from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In time, though, the idea that the word Yankee suggests has shrunk geographically until it is on the verge of extinction.

Perhaps the most famous Yankee of all (no offense to the musical Damn Yankees! intended) has star billing in Mark Twain’s novel Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I have lived most of my life, now, in that southern New England state, and I can assure you there are precious few real Yankees around. Real Yankees might have lived in Connecticut at one time, but now they are from another place and perhaps another time. As television and other forms of mass media invade our homes and tend to diminish regional differences, to make Americans more and more homogeneous, the Yankee might be one of the first genuine American characters to disappear.

A neighbor of mine claims he knows what a real Yankee is all about. Years ago, he says, he lived next door to one. It seems his plumbing was acting up and he’d actually removed the toilet from the floor and taken it out into the backyard to do some surgery on it. Now he knew that his neighbor, who happened to be a professional plumber as well as the putative Yankee, was well aware of the fact that he was struggling to fix his toilet and he knew that his neighbor was home, doing nothing in particular that day, probably watching from the kitchen window. But would he come over and offer to help? No way. But when my friend finally gave up and went over and asked for assistance, the plumber-neighbor not only agreed to help, he did so gleefully. He spent the entire afternoon finding and fixing the problem and helping to return the toilet to its proper place. And wouldn’t accept a dime, of course.

According to my friend, that’s the first tenet of Yankee-ness. You must never offer help because that makes the person to whom you have proffered assistance “beholden” to you. And a Yankee must never be “beholden” to anyone. (That’s how the word for this concept is said, and so we must spell it that way, too.) To be beholden means that you owe something to someone else. Now everyone in the world can owe something to the Yankee, but the Yankee must never owe anyone else anything, and he can’t really understand someone who would be willing to be beholden. Thus he will not offer help — oh, maybe in a real emergency, he would be as good a Samaritan as anyone else — until asked. When asked, it’s another story. You will get more help than you can imagine, help in great abundance, more than you could ever deserve or pay back. So it’s not that Yankees are stingy; on the contrary, a Yankee is generous to a fault. But there is a sense of reserve that prohibits the true Yankee from offering help before being asked. The sense of inviolate space is paramount: “Good fences make good neighbors,” says the neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” and the Yankee will not cross the fence until asked.

Another friend of mine knows someone, a Yankee, a chap born so far north in Vermont that he’s nearly Canadian, who comes over to help with his taxes ever year. To re-pay him, my friend must resort to trickery, leaving something on the doorstep in the middle of the night. To offer anything else, up front, might tip the beholden scales in his favor and that would be risky.

That’s what I think defines this dying breed of the American Yankee: an extraordinary sense of balance and reserve, a holding off — and yet, behind all that reserve, a reservoir of generosity and friendliness that can be nearly overwhelming.


Points to Ponder


Examples to Avoid in ToK Essays

In Theory of Knowledge we always encourage you to use original evidence. It's always more interesting when a student uses an example (a quote, a story, a fact) that we haven't heard of before.

Original "evidence" in your essays doesn't necessarily make them better essays, but it does suggest that you've taken some time with your research and not just using the first thing you found in a last-minute Google search.

The best examples can be the worst --because they're just so darn good.

So again we do tell our students to use "original evidence", but for the student it can be hard to know what is original. As teachers we might see some of the same examples used every year. But it would be hard for a student who is new to the subject to know to know which examples to avoid. 

Good examples of bad examples

The May 2016 ToK Subject report has come to the rescue, with a list of some common examples you might want to avoid. It's not mandatory to avoid these examples, but it could improve your mark.  

And just to be clear, these examples are in this list for a reason. They really are great examples, so you might decide you do want to include one of them in your essay. If you do, just be sure to explain it very clearly and use it in a way that it helps you answer the prescribed title.

Here's the official list:

1. Serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming

2. Mark Rothko and environmental influences on his work

3. String theory and the role of evidence in the sciences

4. Margaret Mead's perspective during fieldwork in Samoa

5. The human aspects of the story of the discovery of DNA and of its structure from Friedrich Miescher to James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin

6. Bloodletting as an example of an obsolete practice in medical science

7. The value of the Enigma code and the work of Alan Turing

8. Alchemy as the necessary precursor to modern chemistry

9. Pablo Picasso and Guernica

10. Vincent van Gogh and Starry Night

11. Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man

12. Isaac Newton and the compatibility of his scientific achievements and his religious orientation

13. Persistence of "anti-vaxxers" despite the exposure of Andrew Wakefield's claims in relation to MMR vaccine as fraudulent

14. The applications of imaginary numbers

15. Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness and reliance on "feeling"

16. Rounding of numbers (eg pi) as examples of simplification and inaccuracy in mathematics

17. Polynomials, factorisation and complexity

18. Music therapy as an application of knowledge in the arts

19. Different notations and ways of doing differentiation from Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz

20. Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb

21. The Hiroshima bomb versus nuclear fission reactors with respect to the value of knowledge

22. Work in number theory by Pythagoras, Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles

23. Membrane structure from Davson/Danielli to Singer/Nicholson and the fluid mosaic model

24. Galileo Galilei’s house arrest and Pope John Paul II's admission of error in 1992

25. Friedrich Wöhler’s blow to vitalism with the non-biological synthesis of urea

26. Atomic theories from John Dalton to JJ Thompson to Ernest Rutherford to Niels Bohr to Erwin Schrödinger

27. Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer on language and eye witnesses

28. Francesco Redi, Louis Pasteur and the disproof of spontaneous generation

29. Alfred Wegener and continental drift

30. Lera Boroditsky’s article on Australian aboriginal orientation

31. Caloric vs kinetic theory with respect to "natural selection" in scientific knowledge

32. Leonhard Euler's equation allegedly having value without application

33. Development of heliocentrism from Aristarchus to Copernicus

34. Thalidomide prescribed for morning sickness and leprosy

35. The outcomes of the work of Fritz Haber for fertilizer and explosives

36. The Riemann hypothesis, large primes and Internet security

37. The Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Nazism in Germany

38. George Orwell's perspective as presented in Animal Farm

39. Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment and wave-particle duality in physics

40. The ethics of Edward Jenner's work on smallpox and vaccination

41. August Kekulé's dream and the structure of benzene

42. Antonio Damasio and somatic marker theory

43. Fritz Fischer and the alleged causes of WWI

44. Occam's razor with respect to Albert Einstein’s special relativity and Hendrik Lorentz’s ether

45. Gregor Mendel and overly neat experimental results for segregation and independent assortment (also Robert Millikan and determination of the electric charge on the electron)

46. Jackson Pollock’s art and the use of WOKs

47. The Amish and rejection of modern technology

48. The Phillips curve and transient accuracy in economics

49. Lock-and-key and induced fit models of enzyme action

50. Spherical and hyperbolic geometries as perspectives in mathematics

51. Confirmation bias and persistent error in the accepted human chromosome number

52. CERN and the Higgs boson as applied knowledge

53. Standard rival interpretations of the Cold War: traditional, revisionist, post-revisionist

54. Albert Einstein and the cosmological constant

55. Edwin Hubble and expansion of the universe

56. Ignaz Semmelweis and childbed fever

57. Conventional current and electron flow

58. The Nanjing massacre and perspectives

59. Alfred Adler and schemas in psychology as the basis for perspectives

60. Biston betularia and industrial melanism as an example of natural selection

61. Detection of gravitational waves in accordance with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity

62. Feynman diagrams and quantum electrodynamics with respect to simplicity and understanding

63. Physiology from Galen to the discovery of blood circulation by William Harvey

64. The complexity of the chemistry of photosynthesis as presented at various stages of education

65. The patient’s “perspective” in connection with the use of placebos in medical testing

66. Heinrich Hertz and the subsequent application of radio waves


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