Essays and Arguments, Section Four

[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC,  is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 2000]


4.0 Definition (2): Defining Key Terms

4.1 The Importance of Certain Key Terms in the Argument

One key to 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 ambiguous.

Let's 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 by poverty. 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.

4.2 Organizing Definitions

Where 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.

However, 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:

1. Fit the descriptive detail in the definition to the knowledge of the people who will be attending to 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).

2. Make sure in the definition you focus on what something is, 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 syndrome which 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.

3. Extend 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.

4. It 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 example,

By 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.

5. Normally, 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).

6. Definitions should normally be presented in a disinterested way. That is, you should not load them up with words which indicate to the reader your judgement 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:

The 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.

You 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.

7. Finally, 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.

Disputed Definitions

Sometimes you will have to deal with a disputed 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 argument.

For 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.

Many of the most contentious arguments today hinge on disputed definitions, for example, the abortion debate (where the definition of a foetus is central), the politics of Israel (where the definition of the term Jew is central), pornography (where the definition of what pornography means 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.

A 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.

4.3 Self-Serving Definitions

When 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.

In 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 trick.

Here is an example of a two-paragraph argument, which begins with a definition and moves from that to a conclusion.

What 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.

Now 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.

This 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.

Is 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?

4.5 Exercise 4: Definitions

Provide full definitions for two of the following. Each definition should be at least as long as the examples provided after the list:

fly fishing
basketball (the game)
a shovel
Nanaimo
the Second World War
blank verse
aerobic exercise
Romantic irony
foetal alcohol syndrome
murder
a sonnet

Example 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)

Example 2: Before discussing the notion of a right to die, we need to clarify precisely what the term legal right means. In common language, the term right tends 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 term right to die in 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)

Notice 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 a dictionary.

4.6 Descriptive and Narrative Definitions

The need to define the terms central to an argument may also sometimes include a requirement to provide a descriptive 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.

For 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.

In 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.

The 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).

4.7 Extended Definitions

Definitions 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.

Suppose, 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:

Paragraph 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 techniques).

Paragraph 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.

Paragraph 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 process.

Paragraph 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.

Paragraph 5: Start of the main part of the argument.

The 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.

The process of setting up an extended definition in this way is essential in many research papers. 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.

So you have 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).

We will be coming back to this important matter in the later discussion of the structure of the research paper.

4.8 Some Summary Points on Definition

To conclude the last two sections of this handbook, let us review briefly the main points about definitions.

The 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.

In 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.

Example 1

General Subject: Unnecessary drugs
Focus 1: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder
Focus 2: Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder in the Public Schools

Thesis: 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.

Paragraph 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).

Paragraph 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).

Paragraph 3: What's wrong with this? Well, for a start. . . . (the argument starts here with the first point in support of the thesis).

Example 2

General Subject: Modern poetry
Focus 1: The Imagist Movement
Focus 2: The Imagist Movement: Stylistic Innovations

Thesis: 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.

Paragraph 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).

Paragraph 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 consisted of).

Paragraph 3: These principles marked a decisive break with tradition. (Argument starts here with attention to the first point in support of the thesis).

Example 3

General Subject: Natural Science
Focus 1: Evolution and Creationism
Focus 2: The flaws in the Creationist argument.

Thesis: 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 evolution.

Paragraph 1: What exactly does the term Creationism mean? (Paragraph goes on to define this key term).

Paragraph 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)

Paragraph 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 thesis).

To 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 looking at.

4.9 Defining the Scope of the Essay

An 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.

1. By looking closely at this scene (and only at this scene), we come to understand some really important features of Hamlet's personality.

2. A 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.

3. The 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.

4. The 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.

Notice 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.


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