A08: Definition Essay

Your first paper is due THU MAR 08. It will make an argument essential to your Research Paper, which is not due until late April. You’ll write three short papers in total this semester, each proving something essential about your Research Paper. Here’s the schedule, taken from the course outline.

1000 words THU MAR 08 Definition Argument (or Evaluation Argument)
1000 words TUE APR 03 Rebuttal Argument
1000 words THU APR 12 Causal Argument
3000 words THU APR 19 Research Position Paper

This first Definition or Evaluation Argument will define a term or evaluate the quality of the sources you’ve selected to prove your thesis. Understandably, you may still be refining your thesis, still gathering valuable sources, still determining the exact parameters of your argument. That is understood. It is also understood that not everything can wait until the end of the semester, and that writing and refining a research paper is shooting at a moving target. What you’ll do in your short papers may be more or less relevant to your last, longer papers depending on how little or how much your thesis changes between now THU APR 19. What you’ll aim at in your short paper is today’s target, however shaped, wherever placed.

Works Cited
Whether the sources you cite in this first formal essay already appear in your earlier posts or not, you’ll need a Works Cited for this assignment. Check the links yourself to be sure they lead back to a page we can all access (even if it’s the page in the databases that “launches” the actual document).

I’ve posted a Sample Works Cited and linked it to the Resources category in the sidebar.

How Can A Definition Be An Argument?

Good question. Let’s say we’re reading an essay by a columnist who has just had to have her apartment wired for internet service for the first time, after years of casually, almost thoughtlessly, logging on to the non-password-protected networks of subscribers in neighboring apartments. She’s never thought of herself as a thief. She’s never thought much about her actions at all; as long as service was available, and free, and she could access it without paying a service provider, she did so, perhaps with gratitude, perhaps with a sense of entitlement.

When the day came that her neighbors locked her out with passwords or moved or migrated to smart phones and unplugged themselves from their own networks, this columnist reports, she awakened from her mindlessness and faced a new reality: the internet isn’t free in the way she’d grown accustomed to thinking of it. It’s a valuable service that costs billions to the providers who expect to be paid for it. She hadn’t been merely sharing what was offered out of generosity to the world. She’d been stealing. She had to re-define what “theft” meant and what “free internet” meant. The internet is a commercial service that somebody is buying (in this case her neighbors) and sharing with others. If they’re sharing willingly, the service is a gift or an inducement. If they’re sharing unwillingly, or without knowing they’re sharing, it’s theft of service.

A one-sentence definition of “free internet” from the author’s new perspective is a tiny little definition essay all by itself: The internet is free to anybody whose conscience doesn’t prohibit her from stealing service from somebody who’s paying for it.

We could argue about her definition. And that’s the point. Definition is argument. Your definition essay will argue for a particular definition and establish the terms under which the rest of your proof will be conducted.
As you work on your own research projects, stay alert to the terms you think are perfectly understood, but which in fact require your readers’ cooperation. I will offer some specific examples from your actual research topics in the section below called What About Me? But first, I want to offer another example of how short arguments must be proved before long arguments can be considered complete.

An Essay Desperately In Need of a Definition

Here’s an example you can examine in detail by reading the actual source. It’s about public sector pensions, a topic being hotly debated all across the country, and which has been particularly contentious in New Jersey since the current Governor took charge of a state scrambling desperately to balance its budget in a time of fiscal crisis.

The story is that former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman took money from the public employees’ pension fund and used it to lower taxes, then borrowed money and gambled it in the stock market to try to repay what she’d taken. Read the article now and then come back.

The article makes a persuasive argument that public sector employees are not responsible for current budget shortfalls. What it desperately needs, though, if it wants to make its broader point, that the state of New Jersey owes money back to the pension fund, is a clear Definition of the state’s fiduciary responsibility to that fund. Is the state obligated to keep those funds locked in a box, free from deflation or loss of any kind? Or is the state obligated to invest that money in instruments that will grow the money to pay future obligations? If so, is the state allowed to choose the stock market to invest in? In other words, did Governor Whitman play within the rules, or did she steal from the employees?

Notice we’re not defining the term pension fund, although the term might be a good candidate for a Definition Essay for a different research project. We’re not defining state, or fiduciary, or the fund. What requires clarification is the concept people like to toss around when they’re debating the topic: The state’s responsibility. “The Governor thumbed her nose at the state’s fiduciary responsibility to the pension fund,” they say, without ever defining that responsibility. There’s your essay.

What About Me?

Joe Mleczko is writing about Affirmative Action, first its accomplishments in achieving better parity in workplace hiring practices and college admissions, then the counterintuitive practices of discriminating against majority populations, genders, age groups, anyone in fact who doesn’t fulfill an employer’s or a college’s need to achieve diversity. He will of course have to define quite precisely what the law mandates as Affirmative Action. But he might also want to widen that definition to include actions taken by personnel and admissions offices that achieve institutional versions of Affirmative Action, such as Target hiring clearly incapable checkout clerks or colleges determined to achieve a particular type of diversity whether the law requires it or not.

Aime Lonsdorf is researching and writing about American obesity. In part, she proposes to examine ways government can influence social behaviors. To even consider whether this is at all appropriate, government would have to demonstrate that it had any business whatsoever trying to promote particular behaviors. (Of course, it does so all the time: speed limits, curfew laws, seat belt mandates, just to name a few). Just today I heard a radio show guest proclaim sugar to be toxic. That’s a very bold definition statement worthy of a 1000-word paper. If it’s toxic, sugar could be regulated like tobacco or alcohol. So there’s a lot riding on the persuasiveness of the definition.

Ashley Petit de Mange is researching the surprising finding that the divorce rate decreases during times of national economic uncertainty, high unemployment, stagnant wages. There may not seem to be much in that topic to require a Definition Essay, but Ashley’s White Paper provides a clue about terms that need clarification. Marriage is a romantic commitment without doubt, but it’s also a business merger, so divorce is both the end of a personal arrangement and a broken partnership. Maybe in tough times couples more deeply bond, maybe they continue to live together to save on expenses, or maybe one party moves out without filing any paperwork because divorce is too costly. How many divorce may be strictly an economic question. In other words, the divorce rate may tell us very little about the state of marriage.

Jon Gonzoph is studying the correlation between violent video games and the violent behavior of players. Everybody, Jon included, is uncertain whether there’s more than a correlation (maybe there isn’t even a correlation); but convincing evidence that one causes the other is certainly not available yet. Jon identifies a very intriguing angle that would certainly be worth a definition essay: What would constitute a convincing study? Should it be deep analysis of real-world numbers that connect violent gamers to violent lives? An experimental study that puts kids in front of Mortal Kombat 8 hours a day and then follows them to the schoolyard? Separating twins for a month to see if the one who was given access to violent games beats up the one who watched cartoons? Jon could define aggression if he wished, or violence for that matter, but I’m hoping he’ll define “best evidence that video games cause violent behavior.”

Bill Brooks will have an easy job finding terms and concepts to define since much of his paper will be an attempt to clarify our misconceptions about what the terms stem cell and embryonic stem cell and fertilized egg and umbilical cells and deceased “human” embryo mean. (I’m not sure I understand that last one as used in the White Paper.) Much of his argument hinges on how we use and abuse these terms to achieve political goals, so the Definition angle is a natural, essential component of his project.

Brett Lang has spent a good part of his White Paper preparing to define nutritional supplement. If he wants to craft a paper that demonstrates exactly to what degree his chosen supplement, Ephedra, meets the definitional criteria, and in doing so educates us about those criteria, I think the results would be just what the “doctor” at GNC ordered.

Tony Shilling
is researching copyright law, more or less. His specific topic is the dispute between Marvel Comics Inc and artists who sell single drawings of Marvel superheroes to individuals for a profit. In particular, he finds it counterintuitive that a contracted “Marvel artist” who spends his workday drawing, for example, Iron Man for Marvel would be sued by Marvel for drawing Iron Man for a kid at a comics convention. He claims in his White Paper that “copyright laws are set in stone” by which he presumably means they’re both rock-solid and certain. But it’s certainly worth a definition paper to prove that everybody knows what uses of the image of Iron Man are protected and what uses aren’t. As the plaintiff in a civil suit, Marvel will have to prove that what its artists do on their own time violates Marvel’s property rights and in some way damages the company. If he doesn’t produce it for a comic book, can the artist claim to be producing a “portrait” of Iron Man for the kid at the comic show?

Ally Hodgson is researching the classification of marijuana as a Schedule One drug. In effect, her entire paper is a Definition Essay. Her job will be to compare marijuana to the criteria for Schedule One classification and see if they match. Within the criteria are several opportunities for short papers about terms. Opponents of marijuana legalization will want to claim that dependence is addiction, so a clear medical distinction between the two would be very helpful to Ally’s paper. She can also spend 1000 words explaining how behavior can be federally illegal but legal within a state. It’s entirely counterintuitive to claim that I can be upholding and breaking the law at the same time for the same behavior in the same country. Finally, although it sounds completely self-explanatory, what exactly is abuse? Can the government ban a substance on the basis of abuse without clearly defining what the term means?

Dale Hamstra is writing about walking. He has made me happy already by sharing with us a familiar description of walking as “controlled falling.” Ever since I heard this description, I have paid attention to my own walking, constantly falling forward and breaking my fall with my forward leg. I have a surprising recommendation for Dale that may also kick-start his research process into the question: Why can we not walk in a straight line? Maybe Dale could define what a straight line is. In a room the size of a gymnasium, blindfolded test subjects would probably deviate from a target destination by more than a few feet. Picture Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey on a bigger scale and without the pre-walk spinning. If we can’t hit the donkey after walking just 100 feet, surely we are doomed to walk in circles? For a blindfolded journey of 1 mile, how critical is a 2-foot deviation from “straight” in the first 100 feet? He could do multiple trials with single subjects to see if they always fail to the right or left. He could add aural aids like a beeping watch somewhere in the room. If the subjects know where the sound is relative to the target, is their performance improved?

Tikeena Sturdivant is researching Adrian Peterson’s provocative claim that he is a “40 million dollar slave.” This is a particularly counterintuitive definitional claim, and Tikeena’s paper will succeed or fail to the degree she argues the definition. Peterson is off to a bad start when the evidence he offers is that players lost money in a profit-sharing negotiation, since slaves don’t negotiate and don’t share in profits. Tikeena further claims that Peterson could “transfer to another team.” Certainly no slave could effect his own transfer, but here Peterson may be on solider ground. Teams “own” players’ “rights,” which to some degree invokes comparison with ownership of one person by another. Tikeena makes a chilling comparison herself that makes a pre-draft physical sound especially unappealing. A crystal-clear definition of what slavery is will of course be the right choice for Tikeena’s Definition Essay. Does it require confinement or physical constraint? Does it permit the owner to transfer ownership right (sounds eerily like the NFL, doesn’t it?)? Does compensation of any kind break the category? Sadly, the world, including the United States, still offers plenty of examples of real slavery. Mr. Peterson’s bombast may have some validity (in addition to metaphorical value) and still be deeply insulting to people suffering true slavery.

Marty Bell is writing about anabolic steroids. His white paper covers a multitude of topics, all designed, he says, to support his primary thesis that steroid use, whether legal or illegal, creates benefits to the sport of baseball that argue in favor of their regular use. So far, the only benefit he has named is the production of more home runs, which result from batters with increased muscle mass. While the big bombs may create interest in many fans, Marty might want to devote a paper to defining the simple concept: benefits of steroids to baseball. Without a clear description of that concept, he won’t have much of a paper. Will widespread steroid use truly result in more homers? Or will beefed-up pitchers generate enough additional pitch speed to make them unhittable? Does a bulkier player field any better, or does he slow down and get clumsier on the diamond? If all we want is more home runs, why not do what we’ve always done: make things tougher on pitchers? Bring in the fences, lower the mound, tighten the strike zone, enliven the ball, permit enriched bats? How long will fans be enchanted with big home run numbers when the whole race seems like a big cheat? These questions won’t help Marty define “benefits of steroids,” but they need to be considered before he claims that steroid use will deliver advantages worth the health risks.

Jon Otero is writing about the specific dangers of Qnexa, a drug promoted to fight obesity. He rightly points out that, whatever the dangers of the drugs that await FDA approval, it’s certainly not safe to be obese. When he claims that Qnexa is a “serious drug” advisable only to reverse obesity, not for casual dieters, he’s beginning to focus attention on a critical question: what’s riskier? the disease or the cure? Apparently he’s preparing to argue that the significant risks of Qnexa outweigh benefits for people who want to shed a few pounds, but are worth chancing for those already at serious health risk from obesity. If the project were mine, I’d be considering a short argument on which choice is more likely to kill or benefit the patient? This proposal may sound like a category dodge that tries to pass off a comparison paper as a definition paper, but I’d try to convince my professor that I’m actually defining an essential concept for my readers: of the two bad choices, which one offers “acceptable risk”? I’ll need considerable factual evidence of the comparable risks of being obese and taking the drug, but that’s what a research paper is all about.

Tyson Still is writing about the effect of divorce as a contributor to young people joining gangs. So far, there’s no indication from his white paper that he’s found any data to support this thesis. He has plenty of theories to share about what sort of love and support might be lacking in the lives of young people who end up in gangs, but the trouble for Tyson is that 50% of American marriages end in divorce, so the causal connection will be really hard to prove. I do have a recommendation that might be more fruitful in helping him focus. What about the percentage of gang members who come from single-parent households, or homes without fathers specifically? It might yield more immediate, more specific, more tangible, more provable results than guessing which gender is more affected by the lack of sufficient help from which parent. One strong source that proves something really specific will make a world of difference—with luck, enough of a difference to build a paper around. Find that source, Tyson.

Eddie Jahn is investigating a practice made famous in the book and movie, Moneyball, that baseball teams overpay for players who rack up stats that don’t win games while teams that buy bargain players with less flashy but more important statistical characteristics improve their teams’ winning percentages without bloating their payrolls. (Why he wants to include on his list of such teams that won World Series with role-players one that didn’t make it to the World Series is beyond me.) I can’t tell from his description of the 2002 Athletics whether the players he names (all very familiar nowadays) were no-name bargain players when they were hired or not, but I should be able to. In fact, the same failure of analysis is apparent in all the descriptions and gives me an idea for a really good definition essay. What’s the “winning stat” that these teams used to beat the teams that had overspent for “useless stats”? Relative payroll is just a small part of what makes this topic interesting. What’s fascinating is that deep analysis of the numbers gives a team an advantage in building a competitive team for less. I can always get great players cheap if I’m the first to notice their specific talents. So, what are the surprising stats that predict they’ll help me win? What were they for these teams?

Tabitha Corrao is researching alternatives to jail time for drug offenders. It appears to be her theory, adopted from the legislative opinions of some well-intentioned and perhaps quite correct experts, that therapy and rehab are better solutions to solving our drug problems than locking people up. The theory is attractive for many reasons, but judging from her Proposal with 5 Sources, Tabitha hasn’t yet established who gets jailed on drug charges, and what the charges are. This essential fact is crucial to any persuasive argument about alternatives to jail. If drug possessors and users are the primary offenders, they may well benefit from rehab, therapy, medication, hand-holding, employment, a supportive family, NA meetings, a holistic approach to civilian life. But if the jails are clogged with dealers, distributors, manufacturers, trafficers, smugglers, and murderers convicted of bumping off rival dealers, rehab is beside the point. Tabitha’s obvious choice for a definition essay is to define “drug offenders.” Until we know who she’s trying to help, we can’t judge whether her solutions make sense.

But What About Me, Too?
Want my best guess about your own topic while you work on this paper? Leave a comment below and I’ll add you to the section.


  • Write your first Shorter Argument paper.
  • The paper will take the form of a Definition Argument, as illustrated in several examples above.
  • For example, define a term such as stem cell not just biologically, but also politically, since people use the term for advance particular social agendas.
  • Or, for example, define a concept such as the perfect study to prove that violent game play causes players to act violently, since only when the perfect study is defined can the author test existing studies for compliance.
  • Define your term(s) or concept(s) thoroughly but concisely in 1,000 words. Padding with wasted words is prohibited.
  • Include Works Cited.
  • Title your post Definition Essay—Author Name.
  • Publish your definition essay in the A08: Definition Essay category.


  • DUE THU MAR 08 before class.
  • Customary late penalties. (0-24 hours 10%) (24-48 hours 20%) (48+ hours, 0 grade)
  • Shorter Arguments grade category (20%)

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels. www.davidbdale.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Assignments, David Hodges, Professor Posts, x Definition Essay. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to A08: Definition Essay

  1. tonyshilling says:

    I’d love a comment on my topic as well, Professor, thanks!


  2. allyhodgson93 says:

    i’d love a comment, too! 🙂 thanks!


  3. dalehamstra27 says:

    I’d also like a comment, please. Thank you


    • davidbdale says:

      I hope you’ll accept my recommendation very promptly, Dale, in time for the results to reflect in your Definition Essay. Working indoors on a smaller scale may turn out to be much easier to accomplish and equally useful, if in a different way. Let me know, please.


  4. sturdi36 says:

    I’d like a comment!


    • davidbdale says:

      You’re doing fine so far, Tikeena. I love your topic and it lends itself so naturally to a Definition Essay. If you find the sources I’ve been sending you useful, I’d love to know that. If not, I’ll stop sending them.


  5. martyb68 says:

    I’d like a comment, thanks.


    • davidbdale says:

      See your section in the post above, Marty. I spent a lot of time arguing your basic premise, but for a purpose I hope you’ll appreciate. (And certainly, better now than later, after you’ve spent weeks on the final research paper!) If the sole result of steroid use is increased muscle mass, you need to think carefully about how many players will benefit, and how, from that change. Let me know if you think the concept is definable and essential to your overall success. It seems so to me. It certainly won’t be a waste of your time to specify the benefits ahead of the rest of your paper.


  6. oteroj40 says:

    I’d really appreciate a comment as well, thank you


    • davidbdale says:

      The recommendation I’ve made seems perfectly sound to me, Jon. Perhaps you’ll agree. Maybe you’d prefer to float another idea that works better for you. I’d appreciate knowing either way.


  7. stillt27 says:

    I would like to receive help as well on this assignment professor. Thank you.


    • davidbdale says:

      I’m doing my best to help you, Tyson, but you appear to be depending on something other than research to put this paper together. If you don’t find some strong evidence of some clear claim very soon, your paper may never have the specific focus it needs to draw meaningful conclusions. I’ve tried again above to impose a narrow focus on your material. I don’t enjoy doing it; I’d much rather you developed your own, but you can’t move forward well without it, so either you or I will have to choose one.


      • stillt27 says:

        Professor, if its not a problem I would like to meet with you before class today to further talk about my paper. I’m having a hard time understanding what exactly you are trying to say, I mean I think I have the concept that you definitely want me to focus on divorce which I am trying to do, but the problem is I am not understanding exactly how you want me to start the research about it. I think if we are able to meet in person than it will come to me much clearer. Please let me know if we can meet around the time of 3:05 or earlier if possible. Thank You.


  8. jahne92 says:

    I would like to receive a comment on my topic please. Thank you Professor.


    • davidbdale says:

      I hope you’ll find my suggestion helpful, Eddie, and that it seems like a reasonable and manageable topic for your Definition Essay. Please let me know either way.


  9. tcorrao says:

    I would really appreciate a comment as well, thank you!


    • davidbdale says:

      That’s it. I finished them all well before midnight. I hope this helps, Tabitha. You need to get yourself back on track promptly. Let me know if this is the guidance you needed.


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