Extended Definitions in Essays and Speeches

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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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.

An extended definition, says Randy Devillez, can be "as short as a paragraph or two or as long as several hundred pages (such as a legal definition of obscene)" (Step by Step College Writing, 1996).

As B.F. Clouse explains below, an extended definition can also serve a persuasive purpose.

See Examples and Observations below.


From the Latin, "boundary"

Examples of Extended Definitions


  • "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."
  • Introduction to an Extended Definition: Family
    "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
    "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.
  • Purposes of an Extended Definition
    "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..."


    Stephen Reid, The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers, 2003

    Marilynn Robinson, "Family." The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Houghton Mifflin, 1998

    Ian McKellen as Amos Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm, 1995

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

    Barbara Fine Clouse, Patterns for a Purpose. McGraw-Hill, 2003