Composition II – Definition Argument

Need help with my English question – I’m studying for my class.



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DESCRIPTION: Whenever a term is contested, a definition argument is at work. We see

definition arguments all around us, whether we realize it or not. Debates what sports should

be included at the Olympics or what sports should count for varsity letters in high school

are definitional questions. If a parent has ever said of your music, “That’s not music, that’s

just noise,” they’re making a definitional claim. They have criteria in mind for what they

consider music (e.g. it’s melodious, it features certain instruments or a certain kind of

singing) and they’re applying those criteria to what you’re listening to.

Some of our most contentious debates rest of definitional questions. The debate over

whether or not marijuana should be legalized or remain a Schedule I drug rests, in fact, on

a definitional question: does marijuana fit the criteria for being included among Schedule

I drugs? The abortion debate essentially comes down to a definitional question—how do

we define life? (Just as a reminder: you cannot write about abortion).

That second example argument points to how sometimes the definitional question is not

over whether or not a contested case belongs in a category, but rather over the category,

itself. “What is art?” and “What do we mean by family?” (is it just blood relations, or

something more?) are both examples of categories that are often contested in some way.

Some terms, in fact, are just so nebulous that they invite discussion: What do mean by

justice? What do we mean by freedom? Still other terms are contested vis-à-vis other terms,

like what where we draw the law between interrogation and torture, or between an

adolescent and an adult.

Any argument that focuses on contested terms is almost certainly a definitional argument.

ASSESSMENT: For this first essay I want to see everyone write an effective introduction,

unified and coherent body paragraphs with strong, focused topic sentences and

transitions (both within and between paragraphs), and a conclusion in support of an

effective thesis that makes a definitional claim. Body paragraphs each will typically focus

on providing evidence that supports and develops a reason (typically given in the body

paragraph’s topic sentence) that in turn supports the central claim made in the thesis.

The essay overall should be developed using rhetorical methods of development that we

have discussed: descriptive details, illustrative examples, comparison and contrast with

focusing on similar terms, the history and usage of a word when appropriate, the use or

function of the word when appropriate, etc.

–See reverse side–

Prompt #1: A Contested category. Some terms involve entire categories that are contested: What

do we mean by sports, for example, or what do we mean by art. For contested categories a good

strategy to use is the criteria-match structure, where you develop criteria for the category that you

think others should also adopt—those criteria typically will be your supporting reasons/topic

sentences, and they will be what you need to persuade your audience to accept; the criteria

themselves, in other words, are what are being contested. You then want to support and develop

the criteria with uncontroversial examples—cases that your audience will not dispute fit in the

category and that match the criteria that you are arguing should be used.

For an example of a contested category, see the “What Do We Mean by Sports?” essay in Canvas.

Prompt #2: A Contested Case. Sometimes we feel like we have a good handle on the criteria for a

category and instead it’s just one case that we want to argue belongs or does not belong in that

category. Whether or not competitive cup stacking is a sport and whether or not graffiti is art are

two examples. For contested cases, you can also begin with criteria for the entire category—for the

competitive cup stacking example above, sports would be the category, and for graffiti, art would

be the category. The criteria here are ones that your audience should readily accept, because the

focus of the essay will be on arguing that those criteria, in fact, match the contested case.

For an example of a contested case, see the example essay on “Sexting” in Canvas.

Prompt #3: Nebulous Terms. Many terms nebulous in and of themselves. They might refer to

abstract concepts or they might be so similar to other terms that there is some debate as to how

distinguish between them. With such terms it’s often difficult to even pin down what they mean;

they might, in fact, mean very different things to different people. My idea of family, for example,

might be much less traditional than what one of you think of when you think of family. I might say

that we choose who to call family, where you might insist that any blood relation qualifies as family

whether we like it or not. When exploring a nebulous term, it can help to use Venn diagrams

(figurative or literal) and/or continuums to compare and contrast the contested term with other like

terms, or to do a deep dive into the word’s history and use.

For examples of nebulous terms, revisit “Glamour, That Certain Something” by Robin Givhan on

pp. 185-7 and “Crossing the Aegean Is ‘Traumatic.’ Your Bad Hair Day Isn’t” by Nicholas Haslam

on pp. 188-91 in our textbook.

I want the title be When Anger becomes Violence. But if you have some another idea that’s fine.