The Definition Essay

There are three ways to define a word:

1. Supply a synonym: one word that has nearly the same meaning as the word you are trying to define. For example, jerk = idiot.

2. Define quickly and provide a sentence to illustrate the definition. Jerk is a person who behaves in a mean way for no apparent reason. My brother was being such a jerk when he wouldn’t let me watch his TV even though he wasn’t even home.

3. Extended definition. Here you write several paragraphs/an essay to define a new or difficult term, or to rescue a word from continuous misuse. (See essay below.)


"A Jerk" by Sydney Harris

I don’t know whether history repeats itself, but biography certainly does. The other day, Michael came in and asked me what a "jerk" was—the same question Carolyn put to me a dozen years ago.

At that time, I fluffed her off with some inane answer, such as "A jerk isn’t a very nice person," but both of us knew it was an unsatisfactory reply. When she went to bed, I began trying to work up a suitable definition.

It is a marvelously apt word, of course. Until it was coined, not more than 25 years ago, there was really no single word in English to describe the kind of person who is a jerk – "boob" and "simp" were too old hat, and besides they really didn’t fit, for they could be lovable, and a jerk never is.

Thinking it over, I decided that a jerk is basically a person without insight. He is not necessarily a fool or a dope, because some extremely clever persons can be jerks. In fact, it has little to do with intelligence as we commonly think of it; it is, rather, a kind of subtle but persuasive aroma emanating from the inner part of the personality.

I know a college president who can be described only as a jerk. He is not an unintelligent man, nor unlearned, nor even unschooled in the social amenities. Yet he is a jerk cum laude, because of a fatal flaw in his nature – he is totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his soul and shuddering at what he sees there.

A jerk, then, is a man (or woman) who is utterly unable to see himself as he appears to others. He has no grace, he is tactless without meaning to be, his is a bore even to his best friends, he is an egotist without charm. All of us are egotists to some extent, but most of us – unlike the jerk – are perfectly and horribly aware of it when we make asses of ourselves. The jerk never knows.

YOUR MISSION: Either by yourself or with a partner, create a composition that defines the word "phony." Ultimately, your essay should focus on the idea of defining what makes a person phony, though you may certainly explore other aspects of "phony." Your assignment should be at least three paragraphs. You may follow the outline modeled above or use your own logic. This is the structure of the above essay:

I Intro

II Previous, inadequate definition. "A jerk isn’t a very nice person."

III Provide synonyms. Begin defining what is and isn’t a jerk.

IV Use example of a jerk. (Real living model and explain.)

V Conclusion: definitive definition deduced. Your final answer.