Dictionary Definitions Are So High School!

by Tina Blue
December 28, 2001

          I always tell my college English students to avoid dictionary definitions in their essays.  I have to tell them that, because if I don't, at least half of them will take a definition straight out of Webster's and plug it into the introduction of the first essay they write for me.

          Why do students trot out dictionary definitions at the drop of a hat?

          Well, there are  a lot of reasons, but I'd say the most influential factor is their fear of introductions.  Getting started is, for most writers, the hardest part of writing, and the dictionary definition is a cheap and easy way to get started.

          Not an effective way, mind you, but definitely cheap and easy.

          Another factor is that their English teachers, from grade school right on up through high school, have not only allowed them to start their essays with dictionary definitions, but often even encouraged it.

          But English teachers in American public schools are products of American schools of education.  That means that most of them have not been through rigorous training in writing, so quite a few are not all that comfortable themselves with the idea of beginning an essay (or writing one at all, for that matter).  Besides, schools of education encourage fairly formulaic responses to most circumstances and assignments, and the introduction with a dictionary definition is reassuringly formulaic.

          Not effective, of course, but reassuring and comfortable.

          Then there is the laudable but often misapplied impulse to make sure that all one's key terms are clearly defined before beginning an argument or analysis.  In a carefully reasoned essay, it really is important to make sure that the meanings of key terms are pinned down if there is any possibility that they might be misunderstood--or if you want to make sure that your reader knows that you will not shift meanings on him as a form of intellectual fraud.

          But there are far more subtle and effective ways to define or clarify your terms.  No one needs to write, "As defined in Webster's dictionary," in order to specify the meaning of a term within the context of an argument.

          Besides, when I encounter dictionary definitions in undergarduate writing, those definitions are manifestly not there to pin down slippery terms.  They are always used clumsily to define the self-evident, and the reason for the dictionary definition is always quite obviously to set up an introduction or a transition, because the writer can't come up with a better way to get to his point.

          In addition to being decidedly inelegant, the dictionary definition is undesirable specifically because those who use this gambit almost always waste time defining the self-evident.  For example, many students in literature classes will spend half of their supposedly analytical and interpretive essays defining the basic vocabulary of literary criticism--vocabulary that any reader who has taken a high school literature class should already be familiar with.

          And that's the point in almost all essays.  If you assume a reasonably educated audience, then there really is no reason to define words that such readers must already know.  To do so is rather an insult to their intelligence, not to mention being awkward and boring.
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