Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2019

How to Write a Definition Essay (Plus Topics You Can Use and a Sample Essay)

Beginning an academic program can be an overwhelming prospect, particularly if you are uncomfortable with writing academic essays. Most programs will require multiple writing assignments on a weekly basis, with different types of essays being assigned based on the class content and professor's preferences. You'll need to be able to research a topic, create an essay outline based on that research, and write the essay using your research and outline as your guides.

Some essay assignments are a lot easier than others and the definition essay is one such type. A definition essay is exactly what it sounds like it should be: An essay you write to provide your reader with the definition of a word. However, it's more in-depth than simply writing a dictionary definition. You'll need to be able to put the definition in your own words, as well as provide examples of how that word is used in various contexts. You'll also need to be able to discuss the connotation and denotation of the word, which are terms we will clarify below.

So, let's look over some common questions academic writers have about a definition essay and clarify them.

A definition essay goes beyond simply stating a word's dictionary definition.
A definition essay goes beyond simply stating a word's dictionary definition. Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

What is the typical length of a definition essay?

Since the purpose of a definition essay is generally limited to defining one word, the length of the essay should be around 1 to 2 pages, if double-spaced. Within these paragraphs, you will cover various aspects of the definition, including how the word can be interpreted in multiple contexts and some examples of the word in a sentence.

What is included in a definition essay?

Although a definition essay is meant to define a word, you can't just copy the dictionary definition and be done with it. For a definition essay, you'll need to use your own words to define the term, including its connotation and denotation. Putting the definition in your own words makes your definition essay more interesting to your reader, who could just look the word up in the dictionary if all they're interested in is a dictionary definition.

Dictionaries also don't include multiple examples of the word used in context, so adding this element to your definition essay makes it more interested for your reader, allowing them to learn something they might not otherwise learn.

What is the difference between connotation and denotation?

Obviously, in order to include these within your definition essay, you need to understand the difference between the two. Below, we cover the definitions of connotation and denotation, as well as offer some examples of how this terminology applies to vocabulary words.

Connotation

According to Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/connotation), the connotation of a word is:

1a. something suggested or implied by a word or thing; 1b. the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes

Denotation

According to Merriam-Webster, the denotation of a word is:

1a. A direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea

Connotation vs. denotation

So, when looking at the difference between the two, you have to consider how the English language contains words that have both a literal and implied meaning. For example, when we look at the word "home," we can consider its literal definition (or denotation), which is a building that is someone's (or a family's) living space.

However, when we consider its metaphorical meaning, we think of "home" as a place of security and comfort, such as "this place feels like home." In this sense, we are using the word's connotation instead of its denotation, or literal meaning.

How should I outline my definition essay?

Even though your definition essay will be around a page or two, at most, in length, you'll still need to follow a typical essay outline when writing it. A typical essay outline includes the introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Thus, your definition essay outline might look something like this:

  1. Introduction
    1. Mention the purpose of the essay (which is to define the term)
    2. A thesis statement that covers both the connotation and denotation of the term (in your own words)
  2. Body para 1
    1. The origin of the term and other etymological information the reader might find interesting
  3. Body para 2
    1. The denotation of the term (in your own words)
    2. Offer examples
  4. Body para 3
    1. The connotation of the term (in your own words)
    2. Offer examples
  5. Conclusion
    1. A brief restatement of the definition of the term
    2. Additional information about the term your reader would find interesting

What are some possible definition essay topics?

If you're given the opportunity to determine your own topic for the definition essay assignment, it's a good idea to pick a term that you are familiar with, can define in your own words, and can discuss at length. Here are some ideas:

  • How do you define world peace?
  • What is your definition of family?
  • What does the word "ego" mean to you?
  • What is social media and how is it best defined?
  • Define nanotechnology
  • What is depression?
  • What is your definition of a hero?
  • How would you define a successful career?
  • What is a team player and how would you define one?
  • Define Capitalism and what it means to you.

Sample definition essay

Below is a sample definition essay for the word "love". Since many terms have several possible definitions and connotations, for a more interesting definition essay, try to choose a word that is not easily defined.

Sample Essay

The word "love" is used in various contexts and can mean different things to different people. There are also different types of love that are referred to in Ancient Greek writing that span everything from unconditional love to obsessive love. This essay will take a look at the meaning of the word—both its denotation and connotation—and explore some examples of how the word might be used in context.

With Germanic origins, the word "love" comes from the Old English "lufu." The root is a mix of Indo-European words, including the Sanskrit word "lubhyati," which means "desires," the Latin word "libet," which means "it is pleasing," and the Latin word "libido," which means "desire."

Merriam-Webster online offers several definitions of the word. Love can be a strong affection for another person based on familial or sexual ties. It can also be an attachment or devotion to an object or person. Thus, the denotation of the word "love" is an extreme affection or attachment to another based on shared history, family connection, or intimacy. In this sense, one might say: "I love my wife and want what's best for her."

The word "love" could hold various connotations for someone, depending on their experience with the emotion. For some, "love" might be a goal in a relationship or a feeling that is intensely intimate and important. For others, "love" could be something to avoid to keep from getting hurt or opening one's self up to potential betrayal. Beyond these associations, the word "love" can also be used when referring to an object or activity that one values or enjoys. For example, "I love going on walks by the beach" or "I love the architecture on this building" are ways the word "love" could be used in a sentence to show an affinity for an activity or object.

The Ancient Greeks believed that there were different types of love and labeled them based on the various emotions that one might feel toward another. For them, love was divided into: Agape (unconditional love), Eros (romantic love), Philia (affectionate love), Philautia (self-love), Storge (familiar love), Pragma (enduring love), Ludus (playful love), and Mania (obsessive love).

Ultimately, the word "love" can mean different things depending on context and the speaker's association with the word. While its most common definition refers to a close tie and intimacy with another person, it can also be used in reference to an affinity for an object or activity. In this situation, it's often used as synonymous with the words "like" or "enjoy" instead of referring to a close, intimate connection or feeling for another person.

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