When writing an essay, you may need to define some of the terminology you use. However, writing a word-for-word definition from the dictionary can be awkward, and putting the definition in the wrong part of your essay can make it seem poorly organized or confusing. To use definitions effectively, you should be concise, use your own words and introduce the definitions in the body of the essay rather than the introduction.
Determine whether the word is unusual enough to warrant a definition. Although you will need to define technical terms and jargon, do not define every advanced vocabulary word you use in an essay. For instance, if writing a sociology paper, you might need to define "Weltanschauung" or "anomie," but not non-technical terms such as "obdurate" or "didactic."
Rephrase the definition in your own words. If you use a word-for-word definition from a dictionary or textbook, you will have to include a full quotation, which will be more awkward than a paraphrase. The sentence, "The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines 'anomie' as 'personal unrest, alienation and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals' " is awkward; the sentence "Anomie is a feeling of unrest coming from the sense that one's life has no purpose" flows better.
Cite the dictionary or textbook from which you took the definition at the end of the sentence if you are using in-text citations. This will give your definition authority. You will avoid plagiarism.
Define the term in the body of the essay, not the introduction. The purpose of your introduction is to catch the reader's attention and establish your thesis, not to define terminology. Furthermore, the opening sentence "According to Webster's dictionary, the definition of [blank] is . . ." has become cliched. If you are worried that you cannot use the term without defining it, use synonyms in your introduction as much as possible.
Keep your definition brief. If you feel you must give a lengthy definition to elaborate on the term's various shades of meaning, break it into a few longer sentences. Do not attempt to give the kind of lengthy, one-sentence definition you would find in a dictionary.
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