Learn How to Use Extended Definitions in Essays and Speeches

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In a paragraph, essay, or speech, an extended definition is an explanation and/or illustration of a word, thing, or concept.

Randy Devillez in "Step by Step College Writing" says that an extended definition can be "as short as a paragraph or two or as long as several hundred pages (such as a legal definition of obscene)."

Examples

Seek out the following for some good examples of extended definition in writing:

"A Definition of a Gentleman" by John Henry Newman from a lecture given in Ireland in 1852.

"A Definition of a Jerk," is a 1961 essay written by Sydney J. Harris.

"Gifts," is an 1844 essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet, philosopher, and essayist.

"Happiness," was first published in 1961 in the "Report to Greco," by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.

Lists and Anaphora in "Pioneers: A View of Home" by Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni Jr., an award-winning African-American poet, writer, and activist.

"The Meaning of Home" was published in 1984 by John Berger, poet, essayist, novelist, and screenwriter. 

Observations

"An extended definition may explain the word's etymology or historical roots, describe sensory characteristics of something (how it looks, feels, sounds, tastes, smells), identify its parts, indicate how something is used, explain what it is not, provide an example of it, and/or note similarities or differences between this term and other words or things," notes Stephen Reid in "The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers."

Introduction to an Extended Definition: Family

In "The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought," Marilynne Robinson points out that "We are all aware that 'family' is a word which eludes definition, as do other important things, like nation, race, culture, gender, species; like art, science, virtue, vice, beauty, truth, justice, happiness, religion; like success; like intelligence. The attempt to impose a definition on indeterminacy and degree and exception is about the straightest road to mischief I know of, very deeply worn, very well traveled to this day. But just for the purposes of this discussion, let us say: one’s family are those toward whom one feels loyalty and obligation, and/or from whom one derives identity, and/or to whom one gives identity, and/or with whom one shares habits, tastes, stories, customs, memories. This definition allows for families of circumstance and affinity as well as kinship, and it allows also for the existence of people who are incapable of family, though they may have parents and siblings and spouses and children."

An Extended Definition of Damned

In the film, "Cold Comfort Farm," actor Ian McKellen plays the part of Amos Starkadder, who says: "You're all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don't. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell, and those demons mocking ye while they wave cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it's like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I'll tell ye: there'll be no butter in hell!"

Composing an Extended Definition of Democracy

"Sometimes,...particularly when we are thinking seriously about a complicated concept, such as democracy, we use a definition as the basis for an entire theme; that is, we write what may be called an extended definition," says Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in "Modern Rhetoric."

Purposes of an Extended Definition

Barbara Fine Clouse explains that an extended definition can also serve a persuasive purpose. "More often than not, an extended definition informs. Sometimes you inform by clarifying something that is complex.... A definition can also inform by bringing the reader to a fresh appreciation of something familiar or taken for granted...."

Sources

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. Modern Rhetoric. Abridged 3rd ed., Harcourt, 1972.

Clouse, Barbara Fine. Patterns for a Purpose: A Rhetorical Reader. 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Devillez, Randy. Step by Step College Writing. Kendall/Hunt, 1996.

McKellen, Ian, actor as Amos Starkadder in “Cold Comfort Farm.” BBC Films, 1995.

Reid, Stephen. The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers. Prentice Hall, 1995.

Robinson, Marilynne. “Family.” The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.