A cliched ploy of many a student is to start an essay with a definition of a word that is important in the essay.

For instance, when writing about Romeo and Juliet a student might start out with, “Dictionary.com defines ‘love’ as ‘a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.'” There are a couple of issues with this:

  1. Many teachers will read your use of Dictionary.com as “I was too lazy to use a real dictionary.” Try using a print dictionary or one available through your library’s website. The Oxford English Dictionary is the most credible and interesting source, although you would need either a real book or access to their website, which requires an account (all roads lead back to your library website).The OED, as it is called, has much more in-depth definitions along with etymology – the history of a word. Using the OED will immediately help you see the term in a deeper context and probably generate some good ideas.
  2. Even Dictionary.com has 10+ definitions for the word ‘love’ – why did you pick the one you did?

Like many instincts, using a definition to start a discussion is a great idea. Just avoid using a cliched and simple definition. Better yet, come up with your own definition.

A key debating skill is defining terms narrowly and to your advantage. So if you see Romeo and Juliet as basically a tale of lust, then your definition of ‘love’ might depend more on physical desire than any romance. Or perhaps you are a real cynic, and think Romeo and Juliet are immature dweebs who wanted to rebel against their families. ‘Love’ might then be defined as an irrational attraction…

You have to be ethical in your use of language. Many a politician has twisted words until they are meaningless and dead…which is going way too far. But if you truly believe in your thesis, defining the key terms to fit your own views can be a powerful strategy. If you do it cleverly, your reader will accept your definition – and therefore more easily digest your main argument.

Perhaps a concrete example will help. Imagine you sell outdoor pools – but only round ones. Your company cannot dig square or rectangular pools.

If a homeowner asked you to quote them a price for a backyard swimming pool, you might talk to them about how pools are really all about parties and socializing. About how round pools are much better for little kids because they don’t have deep ends. About how the round form is a more natural addition to a back yard. Chances are, if you only sell round pools you will really believe these arguments – so you are presenting your views in an ethical manner and the homeowner can choose to believe you. Or maybe the homeowner really wants to swim laps to prepare for a triathalon, and your definition of ‘pool’ won’t suit their needs at all. Both of these definitions (for round and retangular) are more specific and argumentative than the generic definition from our friends at Dictionary.com: “Swimming Pool: a tank or large artificial basin, as of concrete, for filling with water for swimming.”