How to Put a Definition in an Essay

Do you feel passion for the words and ideas in your essays? While you may know your essay topic inside and out, your potential reader may not know all the verbiage or lingo. When writing an essay, you may need to define some of that terminology that is familiar to you. 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 in 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. The first time you refer to this source, use the full title followed by the abbreviation. After that first reference, you can simply use the abbreviation. By taking the step of correctly referencing any definition source used, you can avoid plagiarism in your essay text.

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. The lengthy dictionary definition form doesn't work as well within the essay format. If you define a word within the essay, it shouldn't be a disruptive part of the essay in length or wording. While a personal essay might seem a place for you to add your own thoughts to a definition; keeping the definition brief, concise and well-cited brings clarity to the essay, without adversely affecting your essay's tone or message.