Death penalty


Definitional Arguments: Nuts and Bolts

Definitional Arguments (Is X a Y?, Where the Definition of Y is Contested); A definitional argument sets up a definition of a term and then examines a specific, contested issue (case) to see if it matches the definition.


Is occasional telling of off-color jokes in the workplace an instance of sexual harassment?

–          define the Y term (i.e., sexual harassment) and defend your definition against objections and alternative definitions

–          show how the X term fits (or does not fit) your definition – criteria match part


Task: You are to write an argument that develops a definitional claim of the form “X is (is not) a Y”, where Y is a controversial term with a disputed definition. Typically our argument will have a criteria section in which you develop an extended definition of your Y term and a match section in which you argue that your X does (does not) meet the criteria for Y. Suppose, for example, you want to argue that using animals for medical research constitutes cruelty to animals. First, you would need to define the Y term (what does “cruelty to animals” mean) and demonstrate how using animals for research fits your definition. Almost all legal disputes require definitional arguing because courts must determine whether an action meets or does not meet the criteria for a crime or civil tort as defined by a law, statute, or series of previous court rulings.


Initial Enthymeme[1]: X is (or is not) a Y because it has (or does not have) components A, B, C, etc.


Here are some more examples of typical definitional claims:

  1. Flag burning (or pornography, hate speech, etc.) is (or is not) a case of free speech protected by the First Amendment because…
  2. Advertisements (or Danielle Steele or Stephen King novels, or music videos, etc.) are (or are not) works of art because…
  3. Cheerleaders (or ping-pong players, or synchronized swimmers, or aerobics instructors, etc.) are (or are not) athletes because…
  4. Single parents (or gay couples, or a commune) are (or are not) families because…
  5. Euthanasia (assisted suicide) is (is not) murder because…


  • YOUR ARGUMENT SHOULD BE BASED ON WELL-CHOSEN CITERIA: Remember that the core of your argument will involve defining your Y term by establishing criteria through claims, grounds, warrants, and backing. Also, try to anticipate conditions of rebuttal for your argument. Only after you have argued the criteria for your Y term will you actually match your X term to these criteria.
  • CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT: The case (X term) you choose to illustrate your definition shouldn’t be so obvious that renders a persuasive argument unnecessary. For example, people would be unlikely to disagree about whether shooting an unarmed man in the back is police brutality, so it’s unlikely to provide a useful case for your argument. On the other hand, people would probably disagree about whether a policeman has the right to punch a suspect who yells and struggles during arrest. Your case (X term) may come from the news or from personal experience, or it may be hypothetical – but be sure your claim is an arguable proposition.
  • DEFINE & DESCRIBE THE SUBJECT: Before you begin your definitional argument, explain to your readers why you think it’s important to define the term you’ve chosen: Why, in other words, is it controversial? What are its implications? Why is your argument important? Make sure your readers care about the topic and give them enough information to understand your position.
  • USE RELIABLE SOURCES: Your source material adds authority to your argument, so you must specify reliable sources. Source material should contribute something to your paper that you cannot: specific facts, clarification or emphasis of a point, a voice with authority in a specific area, illustration of the controversy or complexity around your issue.


Purpose: Present the issue to readers and develop an argument for the purpose of confirming, challenging, or changing your readers’ views on the issue.


Audience: Most writers compose definitional arguments because they are deeply concerned about the issue. As they develop their argument with their readers in mind, however, writers usually feel challenged to think critically about their own as well as their readers’ feelings and views on the issue.


Writers with strong convictions seek to influence their readers. This is OK, assuming that logical argument will prevail over prejudice. A logical argument ought to present compelling reasons and support based on shared values and principles. Nevertheless, writers often recognize that in cases where disagreement is profound, it is highly unlikely that a single essay will be able to change readers’ minds, regardless of how well written it is. So, writers’ expectations need to be realistic. Addressing an audience that is completely opposed to their position, most writers are satisfied if they can simply win their readers’ respect for their different point of view. Often, however, all that can be done is to sharpen the differences.


Basic Components:

  • An Introduction of the Definitional Issue (the Controversial Issue) – The intro should show the disagreements                             about the definition of the key term or about its application to a problematic case.
  • A clear Claim (or Thesis) stating that X is (or is not) Y
  • Your Definitions of The Key Term
  • Your Criteria (This part should argue that contested case meets (or does not meet) the proposed criteria.)
  • Summary of Opposing Views and Response to Opposing Views
  • An Effective Conclusion


Organizing Definitional Argument: See pp. 227-8.


Promising and Unpromising Topics: The crucial thing to remember when writing a definitional argument is the amount and the quality of information. If you are not well informed about a topic and do not have the time or inclination to inform yourselves, then your argument is likely to be fatuous – full of generalizations and lacking reasons and evidence.


Promising topics are first and foremost controversial issues that have been publicly disputed. You need to specify a controversial issue that you have researched sufficiently. “Sufficiently researched” does not mean only seeking reasons and evidence to support your position, since such approach can be one-sided. You also need to learn about the other side: i.e., the opponents’ position. Most frequently, controversial issues are heavily debatable topics where there exist two polarized views (for and against), each of which has their own argumentation. You need to be able to anticipate opposing arguments and to recognize values and concerns they may share with others. Moreover, your paper must respond to these opposing views by bringing up enough evidence that will refute them effectively.


Caring about the topic is essential for good writing, especially for argumentative writing. Therefore, you must carefully select a topic on which you feel free to express your personal opinion. You might have been taught to refrain from arguing assertively, and this paper might look threatening to you. Do not despair! Your opinion needs to be communicated clearly and you need to give ample evidence to back it up. After all, having difference of opinions is one of the fundamental traits of democracy, and our public life (which abounds in taking different sides on hot, disputable issues) verifies how dynamic and contested our discourse is. But remember, you need to KNOW your topic, to be able to cogently argue for/against it.


Some might object that they are in college to consume and familiarize themselves with ideas and opinions, not to produce them. In response to this view, let me remind you of the importance of the PROCESS over the PRODUCT. Taking a position in a definitional argument teaches you to analyse issues critically and to evaluate arguments pro and con. With experience, writers gain confidence in their reasoning abilities and come to enjoy developing a thoughtful, well-supported argument.


Special Problems: The greatest problem seems to be mistaking assertion for argumentation. This is manifested in sweeping generalizations unsupported by reasons or evidence. It is not enough to state your opinionyou have to present reasons for your opinion and offer evidence to support it. Also, it is essential to recognize the importance of anticipating readers’ opposing arguments and either modify your own position by acknowledging valid objections, or defend it by refuting arguments with emphasizing the evidence against them or adding some more evidence against such arguments. Again, you are expected to voice your own opinion, but to examine it critically by taking into consideration the opposed views as well.


You create a strong argument NOT by being aggressive towards the opponents or by adamantly standing your grounds. A position paper is intended to communicate equally with those who agree with you, as well as with those who disagree. So, the purpose of this paper is not to squash your opponents into the ground, but to voice your opinion by virtue of the evidence that supports it.


Research: As for all the papers in this course, your data must result from research, and not from your memory. Before drafting, you need to revisit the subject and carefully take notes. This paper requires a library research, and research in your textbooks, in other relevant printed sources of information (scholarly journals, encyclopedias, dictionaries, specialized magazines), or, on the Web. As you will be speculating about various causes, you will essentially approaching the subject from a multiple perspective.


Research Notes: Having good research notes and marked sources will make drafting easier. You should take notes while collecting materials and note the sources on the same piece of paper. It is often not easy to go back and find out what your sources were. If you find anything relevant, make a note of it. Using sources without giving appropriate credit is considered plagiarism and will result in a failing grade!


Sources and Citation Format: Relevant sources add to the credibility and strengthen your arguments. Referring to authoritative sources is a must in academic writing. It is used to support writer’s assumptions and claims. For the use of outside sources, consult Chapter 17 Using, Citing, and Documenting Sources. This section describes in detail how to cite various sources, including the formats of electronic sources.


Format Requirements


Formatting your document is the final important thing you need to take care of. Before you hand in your paper, please make sure that all the following format requirements are met:


  • Font size: 12 points.
  • Font: Times New Roman.
  • Margins: all margins (top, bottom, left, and right) should be 1 inch. To adjust the margins, go to File/ Page Setup/Margins and set all of them to 1”.
  • Place your name, my name, course title, and date, in the left corner at the top of the first page.
  • The text should be double-spaced. (Go to FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE SPACING and set it to “DOUBLE.”)
  • The paper should have a Title that needs to be centered. Do not underline the title.
  • Pagination: All pages must be numbered.
  • Length: A minimum of 1,200 words. The paper needs to have an introduction, body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. Note that a paragraph is not just one sentence! J
  • Begin typing your paper one double space below your title.
  • The sources used in the paper must follow MLA System of Documentation.
  • The paper should have a separate “Works Cited” page containing minimally 4 (four) sources.
  • Last, but not least, please staple the paper! I will NOT accept unstapled papers.





Format: Those papers that will not comply exactly with the above format requirements will be downgraded up to 10 %. Papers that do not include a Work Cited Page and references to outside sources will be downgraded up to 15%.


Lateness: If you do not have copies of your final paper on the day they are due, you will lose 10 % from your final paper grade. Also, late papers will be downgraded 10% per each day they are late.  Papers more than one week late will be downgraded 50%.


I look forward to reading your definitional arguments! J


a)      yes

b)      no

c)      no

d)     yes

e)      no but

f)       no

g)      no

h)      no problematic

i)        yes

j)        no / yes debatable

[1] An ENTHYMEME consists of a CLAIM followed by a BECAUSE CLAUSE (or STATED REASONS).z

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