text, which has been prepared byIan
University-College, Nanaimo, BC
(now Vancouver Island University),
is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission
and without charge, released May 2000; revised and reformatted March 2008]
The Importance of Certain Key Terms in the Argument
important part of setting up and conducting an effective argument is often the
establishment of clear, precise, and effective definitions for key terms in the
argument, so that everyone agrees from the start what exactly is under
discussion. And the analysis of an argument requires you to pay the closest
attention to any definitions, simply because a devious or inadequate or
misleading definition can produce something that looks plausible but which is,
in fact, problematic because the initial definition is self-serving or
take an obvious example. Suppose I wish to construct an argument that we must do
something at once to alleviate the growing poverty in Canadian society. An
essential prerequisite here will be defining just what I mean bypoverty.
That is, I shall have to make sure that everyone following my argument shares
the same definition. If I simply let each reader bring to bear her own
understanding of that term, then I am inviting confusion. And the plausibility
of my argument is going to depend, in large part, upon the adequacy of that
definition. If, for example, I set a higher income level than normally
recognized as the defining line, then I can easily show poverty is much worse
than others have claimed; if I set a low income level, then I can show poverty
is decreasing or is not so bad as other writers state.
does one find definitions which satisfy the criteria mentioned above? Well, the
most obviously places are those texts recognized as authoritative in a
particular area, that is, dictionaries or specialized handbooks. An important
part of study in an academic discipline (e.g., Criminology, Sociology, History,
Psychology, Chemistry, English, and so on) is learning where one finds the most
current and acceptable definitions. In many cases, you can find an acceptable
definition in such a book.
sometimes you are going to have to adapt such definitions or else come up with
one of your own. When you are defining something, there are some important
principles to keep in mind:
the descriptive detail in the definition to the knowledge of the people who will
be attending to your argument and to the requirements of your argument. The
definition of, say, AIDS for a general readership will be different from the
definition for a group of doctors (the latter will be much more technical).
sure in the definition you focus on what somethingis,
not just on what its effects are or what it is used for (that may come later).
For instance, a definition of, say,foetal
alcohol syndromewhich says
only that it is “a condition which affects many pregnant mothers and which can
have very harmful effects on the children, including alcoholism, brain damage,
behavioural problems, and stunted growth” is not immediately very useful since
it has not said exactly what the condition is.
the definition so that it exactly covers what you want the reader to understand.
This may mean that you will want to expand on the dictionary definition (most
definitions from standard language dictionaries are too short to serve by
themselves). Make sure definitions are full and complete; do not rush them
unduly. And do not assume that just because the term is quite common that
everyone knows just what it means (e.g.,alcoholism).
If you are using the term in a very specific sense, then let the reader know
what that is. The amount of detail you include in a definition should cover what
is essential for the reader to know, in order to follow the argument. By the
same token, do not overload the definition, providing too much detail or using
far too technical a language for those who will be reading the essay.
is often a good idea to supplement a definition, where appropriate, with what it
does not include, so as to prevent any confusion in the reader’s mind. For
poverty here I mean an urban family living on a combined income from all
sources of 32,000 dollars a year or less. This definition does not include
families living outside of urban centres or those which have some means of
supporting themselves outside the cash economy (e.g., by hunting, fishing, or
farming). The term also excludes all single people and couples without
children at home.
you should not invent a definition for anything which already has a clear and
accepted definition in place (but see the paragraphs below on disputed
definitions). This is particularly important when there is a specific definition
in place which deals with a term in the context you are discussing it. For
instance, if you are writing an essay about the law on, say, murder, then you
will have to bring into play the legal definition of the term (rather than using
one of your own).
should normally be presented in a disinterested way. That is, you should not
load them up with words which indicate to the reader your judgment about what
you are defining (even if the purpose of the essay is to evaluate some aspect of
that term). Keep the definition neutral. Do not, for example, write something
like the following:
Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a really unfair invention of the Mulroney
government. It arbitrarily imposed a grievous burden on all hard-working
Canadians by making them pay a 7 percent surcharge on every article and on
every service they purchased, from books and toys to meals in restaurants and
real estate. While a few things were exempt, almost every item on a
consumer’s slender budget was subject to this nasty provision to send more
money to that sink-hole bureaucracy in Ottawa.
may want the reader to share this very unfavourable view of this tax, but
don’t impose that view on the definition. It makes you sound hopelessly biased
from the start. Instead give an impartial definition of the GST and let your
emotional attitude to it emerge later.
once you establish a definition, do not change its meaning in the middle of the
argument (another very common and misleading fallacy). So make sure, when you
establish the definition initially it states exactly what you mean for the
purposes of the entire argument, and then stick to that meaning of the term.
you will have to deal with adisputed
definition, that is, a term for which there are different and conflicting
definitions. In such a case, it is often useful to review the existing
definitions and then to stipulate the definition you are going to use in the
instance, suppose you are constructing an argument about how we should deal with
the problem of aboriginal rights for Native Canadians. You will have to define
precisely what you mean by the term Native Canadian. Does this term include all
people who call themselves Native Canadians? Is the term restricted to those
whom the governing bands or the federal government or the census designate as
Native Canadians? Is a Native Canadian anyone who is married to or descended
from a Native Canadian? Is there a legal definition of the term? And so on. In
such a case, it is a good idea to indicate that the term is disputatious and
briefly to review some of the options. Then for the purpose of your argument you
stipulate the particular definition which you are going to use.
of the most contentious arguments today hinge on disputed definitions, for
example, the abortion debate (where the definition ofa
foetusis central), the
politics of Israel (where the definition of the termJewis
central), pornography (where the definition of whatpornographymeans
is central) and some feminist arguments (where defining the similarity or
difference between men and women is central), and so on. Such arguments are
often particularly difficult to resolve, because the disputants cannot agree on
how to set up the argument.
number of arguments do not require definition of key terms because they do not
involve any which the general reader cannot readily understand. Such is the case
usually with essays on literary subjects, especially those which focus on
character analysis or plot structure. Even here, however, if the argument
involves as a central point some specialized term, like, say,Romantic
irony, the writer is well advised to define the term clearly before
proceeding, especially if there is some chance that a few readers will not
understand or will misunderstand it.
you construct an argument and especially when you analyze someone else’s
argument, be very careful about definitions which are intentionally twisted to
support a particular argument, a very common tactic in misleading arguments.
Often, the entire logic of an argument depends upon a particular definition, so
if you accept it too casually, then you may find it difficult later to avoid
conclusions which do not sound plausible but which do seem to arise logically
from the points made.
analyzing an argument, in fact, you should immediately slow down when the writer
is defining something and ask yourself whether or not this definition is
adequate. Getting readers quickly to accept a loaded definition is one of the
commonest methods of sounding reasonable and yet playing a devious logical
is an example of a two-paragraph argument, which begins with a definition and
moves from that to a conclusion.
is science? Well, we all agree that science is an activity in which we observe
and measure a natural occurrence. We carry out this process repeatedly until
we have a sense of how this process might work mechanically. On the basis of
this sense, we construct a theory and a mechanical model, and this theory will
enable us then to predict various things about the process under observation.
Once this theory is in place, we proceed to test it by further observation and
experiment involving the process we are explaining. At the heart of the
scientific endeavour is this constant return to detailed observation of the
natural process under investigation. Unless the process is observed directly,
the study of it is not scientific.
evolution is obviously something we cannot observe. By the evolutionists’ own
admission, the time spans involve millions of years—far beyond the capacity of
any single human being or of any collection of human beings to investigate
according to the very processes which science itself requires. Thus, while
evolution is clearly a theory, an idea, it cannot be scientific. It cannot be
tested because it cannot be observed. Thus evolution, no matter what its
supporters might claim, has no scientific validity.
argument, you will notice, is deductive in structure. It begins by setting up a
definition of science which, it claims, is shared by everyone. Then, in the
second paragraph the writer applies this definition to the theory of evolution,
in order to conclude that evolution does not fit the definition and is,
therefore, not scientific.
this argument persuasive? Well, if we accept the definition of science in the
first paragraph, then the conclusion given at the end of the second paragraph
would seem inescapable. So the key question here is this: How adequate is that
definition of science?
Exercise 4: Definitions
full definitions for two of the following. Each definition should be at least as
long as the examples provided after the list:
basketball (the game)
the Second World War
foetal alcohol syndrome
1: A full-time student in the
university program at Malaspina University-College is any student, male or
female, in any year of any undergraduate program concurrently taking three or
more 3-credit courses at Malaspina University-College (that is, the student must
have a course load of 9 or more approved credits at this institution). This
definition does not include any courses which do not have university credit
(e.g., continuing education offerings or preparatory courses) or which are
offered by other institutions (e.g. the University of Victoria or the Open
University), nor does it include any courses which a student may be taking on an
audit basis or from which a student may have recently withdrawn. (112 words)
2: Before discussing the notion
of a right to die, we need to clarify precisely what the termlegal
rightmeans. In common
language, the termrighttends
often to mean something good, something people ought to have (e.g., a right to a
good home, a right to a meaningful job, and so on). In law, however, the term
has a much more specific meaning. It refers to something to which people are
legally entitled. Thus, a legal right also confers a legal obligation on someone
or some institution to make sure the right is conferred. For instance, in
Canada, children of a certain age have a right to a free public education. This
right confers on society the obligation to provide that education, and society
cannot refuse without breaking the law. Hence, when we use the termright
to diein a legal sense, we
are describing something to which a citizen is legally entitled, and we are
insisting that someone in society has an obligation to provide the services
which will confer that right on anyone who wants it. (181 words)
that these definitions are extensive, making use of examples to clarify
precisely a point and indicating in places what the definition does not include.
Such definitions are much more helpful than a one or two sentence quotation from
Descriptive and Narrative Definitions
need to define the terms central to an argument may also sometimes include a
requirement to provide a
or narrative definition, often of some length, of a term which refers to a
particular place, institution, law, person, or event. In other words, you may
need, as a preliminary step in an argument, to provide the reader an accurate
descriptive or narrative definition.
example, if you are writing an argument about logging in Clayoquot Sound or
about the Gustafson Lake conflict, it is important that the readers fully
understand what you mean by the Clayoquot Sound or the Gustafson Lake conflict.
So you will need to provide a descriptive definition of the key term. In the
first case, this will normally require a brief geographical description
(locating the Clayoquot and describing it sufficiently so that the reader has an
understanding of the area you are talking about); in the second case, this
descriptive definition will require a short narrative definition in which you
briefly give the location, dates, main events, and conclusion of the Gustafson
Lake conflict. Since you cannot assume that all readers will have accurate
information about these matters, you will need to define them.
such definitions you should keep your tone as neutral as possible (the argument
has not yet started). All you are doing at this point is making sure that every
reader clearly understands and shares a common factual understanding of
something essential to the argument. Do not, by introducing an evaluative tone
(i.e., taking sides), suggest to the reader that this definition is being set up
to prove a contested issue. All you are doing is setting the stage for the
argument you are about to start.
point is (and we will be returning to this later) that, if there is a chance
that your readers may have a ambiguous or uncertain sense of something central
to what you are presenting, then you must clear that up (usually very early in
the presentation), so that they all share a common meaning. In deciding what you
need to define in this way, keep in mind the knowledge of the audience you are
addressing. Your expectations from a general readership (e.g., your classmates)
will be quite different from your expectations from a very specialized audience
(e.g., the Williams Lake city council or Greenpeace).
can sometimes be quite extensive, when you need to make sure that the readers
have a full grasp of all the necessary details of a particular topic. So in some
cases you may need to take more than one paragraph to include all the necessary
facts you want readers to know. While such extended definitions are not really
common in a short essay, they are often a key part of the introduction to a
longer research paper.
for instance, that you are writing a long argument (in the form of a research
paper) about the dangers of the new cloning technology. Before going into the
argument, you want people to have a very clear understanding of the factual
background to this topic. In other words, you have to define a few issues. You
might want to include a number of paragraphs defining and describing the issue
of cloning in various ways, as follows:
1: Introductory Paragraph,
setting up the subject, focus, and thesis of the research paper (an argument
that we need to impose some strict regulations on research into cloning
2: Formal definition of cloning
(what does the term mean, what are key elements in the process). From this the
reader should derive an accurate sense of what cloning is and what you mean by
the term and what you do not mean by the term in the rest of the essay.
3: Descriptive definition of
the development of cloning, in the form of a narrative: When did it start? What
were the key experiments in the history of the process? Where are we now? From
this the reader should derive a precise idea of the developing history of the
4: Descriptive-definition of
the present laws on cloning: What is the legal status of the process right now?
From this the reader should understand exactly what the present law does or does
not say about the procedures.This
section might include a brief reference to the laws regarding cloning in other
5: Start of the main part of
first four paragraphs, you will notice, are not arguing anything (this is an
important point). After the introduction, which sets up the argument, the next
three paragraphs are providing the key factual background upon which your
argument will draw once you launch it. Their purpose is to give all readers a
shared sense of the necessary facts, without which they may become confused once
the argument begins.
definitions are often very important in setting out the full factual context for
an argument about the historical significance of an event or a discovery.If,
for example, your paper is arguing that Galileo’s experiments marked a
decisive shift in the way science was conducted, then you will need to inform
the reader (briefly but usefully) of the state of affairs in scientific thinking
when Galileo began his work.
process of setting up an extended definition in this way is essential in many
other research papers, as well. But there is one important danger:you
must not overload these paragraphs, letting the extended definition run away
with the paper. If the purpose of the paper is an argument, then the
introduction to it must focus briefly and succinctly only on those matters
essential for an understanding of the argument. You have to be careful not to
let this introductory material grow so long that it takes over the paper.This
is a danger many students are easily seduced into making, because providing
pages and pages of such introductory material is easy (what’s called in the
trade “stuffing the turkey”).
you have to observe three principles in such extensive definitions: (1) only
include matters relevant to what you are going to say later, (2) provide that
factual description quickly and clearly, and (3) keep the tone neutral (don’t
launch into the argument in this section of the introduction).
will be coming back to this important matter in the later discussion of the
structure of the research paper.
Some Summary Points on Definition
conclude the last two sections of this handbook, let us review briefly the main
points about definitions.
first task in any argument is to set it up properly, so that the listener or the
reader clearly understands what is being put into debate, what is not being
included, and what essential information is required to follow the argument.
most cases, the argument will be defined in the opening paragraph (the
Introduction) and the definitions (if necessary) will follow in one or two
subsequent paragraphs. Here, for example, are some sample outlines for the
opening paragraphs of a longer argument in which some definition is necessary
before the main argument commences.
Subject: Unnecessary drugs
Focus 1: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder
Focus 2: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder in the Public Schools
The present use of Ritalin the public schools is a major scandal which is
enriching the drug companies and perhaps making the lives of elementary school
teachers less troublesome but which is turning thousands of children
unnecessarily into addicts.
1: What exactly is Ritalin (paragraph goes on to define what Ritalin is
chemically, giving an idea of what it is and how it works, but briefly).
2: Ritalin is routinely prescribed for a condition known as Attention Deficit
Disorder (ADD). The standard definition of this condition is as follows.
(Paragraph goes on to define ADD).
3: What’s wrong with this? Well, for a start. . . . (the argument starts here
with the first point in support of the thesis).
Subject: Modern poetry
Focus 1: The Imagist Movement
Focus 2: The Imagist Movement: Stylistic Innovations
The Imagist Movement, in fact, marked a decisive break with traditional way of
writing poetry and clearly initiated the major features which have dominated the
writing of poetry, especially lyric poetry, ever since. As such, it is the most
important development in English poetry in the past century.
1: The Imagist Movement began with a small meeting of a few young writers in
London in 1914. . . (Paragraph goes on to give a narrative description of the
facts surrounding the beginning of the Imagist Movement).
2: The basic principles of this new movement were few and easy to understand.
(Paragraph goes on to define in further detail just what the Imagist Movement
3: These principles marked a decisive break with tradition. (Argument starts
here with attention to the first point in support of the thesis).
Subject: Natural Science
Focus 1: Evolution and Creationism
Focus 2: The flaws in the Creationist argument.
The standard arguments from Creationist thinkers who insist on the scientific
validity of their theories are so basically flawed that it is difficult to
understand how any rational person can take seriously anything they say about
1: What exactly does the term Creationism mean? (Paragraph goes on to define
this key term).
2: Before exploring the argument, we must also establish clearly what modern
science means by evolution and by Natural Selection, since these terms are
commonly confused. (Paragraph goes on to define these two key terms)
3: The first problem with the logic of the Creationist is clear enough.
(Paragraph starts the argument here with the first point in support of the
repeat a point made more than once in this section: not all essays will need
definitions of this sort, and the arguer can launch the argument immediately
after the introductory paragraph. This will normally be the case in short
essays, especially those on literature. But in a longer research paper, such
definition is frequently essential, especially when you are writing for a
general audience which has no expert knowledge of the subject matter you are
Defining the Scope of the Essay
important part of defining the argument is often an indication of the scope of
the argument, that is, a clear indication of what it does not include. If the
precise extent of the claim you are making is not clear to the reader or
listener, then she may bring to the argument expectations which you have no
intention of fulfilling. Thus, it is usually very helpful to provide some
information about how far your argument reaches. Notice how the following
sentences, inserted in the opening paragraph before the statement of the thesis,
help to resolve this issue.
looking closely at this scene (and only at this scene), we come to understand
some really important features of Hamlet’s personality.
full examination of the social problems of alcoholism would require several
books. However, even a cursory look at the problems of teenage drinking in
Nanaimo reveals some important points about our perceptions of the problems.
Native land claims issue in BC is full of legal, moral, historical, and economic
complexities, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore these
concerns. What is relevant here is the particular response of the federal
government to the crisis at Oka.
causes of the French Revolution have been much discussed and disputed. Clearly
there were many factors involved over a long period of time. What is of
particular concern here is the immediate economic crisis faced by the
government. If we set aside all the other important factors and focus on that,
we can see how the revolution was almost inevitable.
how these sentences alert the reader to the important point that you are not
discussing all the issues raised by the subject you are dealing with. You are
identifying something very specific and indicating at the same time what you
will not be considering.
that no reader of your argument has a valid objection if she protests that you
did not talk about something you deliberately and clearly excluded, but her
response can be a very important criticism if you have not expressly indicated
that omission early in the paper.