Single Sex/Gender Education

Definitional Arguments (Is X a Y?, Where the Definition of Y is Contested); A definitional argument sets up a definition of a term and then examines a specific, contested issue (case) to see if it matches the definition.


Is occasional telling of off-color jokes in the workplace an instance of sexual harassment?

“ define the Y term (i.e., sexual harassment) and defend your definition against objections and alternative definitions

“ show how the X term fits (or does not fit) your definition “ criteria match part

Task: You are to write an argument that develops a definitional claim of the form œX is (is not) a Y, where Y is a controversial term with a disputed definition. Typically our argument will have a criteria section in which you develop an extended definition of your Y term and a match section in which you argue that your X does (does not) meet the criteria for Y. Suppose, for example, you want to argue that using animals for medical research constitutes cruelty to animals. First, you would need to define the Y term (what does œcruelty to animals mean) and demonstrate how using animals for research fits your definition. Almost all legal disputes require definitional arguing because courts must determine whether an action meets or does not meet the criteria for a crime or civil tort as defined by a law, statute, or series of previous court rulings.


Here are some more examples of typical definitional claims:

1. Flag burning (or pornography, hate speech, etc.) is (or is not) a case of free speech protected by the First Amendment because¦

2. Advertisements (or Danielle Steele or Stephen King novels, or music videos, etc.) are (or are not) works of art because¦

3. Cheerleaders (or ping-pong players, or synchronized swimmers, or aerobics instructors, etc.) are (or are not) athletes because¦


4. Single parents (or gay couples, or a commune) are (or are not) families because¦

5. Euthanasia (assisted suicide) is (is not) murder because¦


YOUR ARGUMENT SHOULD BE BASED ON WELL-CHOSEN CITERIA: Remember that the core of your argument will involve defining your Y term by establishing criteria through claims, grounds, warrants, and backing. Also, try to anticipate conditions of rebuttal for your argument. Only after you have argued the criteria for your Y term will you actually match your X term to these criteria.

CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT: The case (X term) you choose to illustrate your definition shouldn’t be so obvious that renders a persuasive argument unnecessary. For example, people would be unlikely to disagree about whether shooting an unarmed man in the back is police brutality, so it’s unlikely to provide a useful case for your argument. On the other hand, people would probably disagree about whether a policeman has the right to punch a suspect who yells and struggles during arrest. Your case (X term) may come from the news or from personal experience, or it may be hypothetical “ but be sure your claim is an arguable proposition.

DEFINE & DESCRIBE THE SUBJECT: Before you begin your definitional argument, explain to your readers why you think it’s important to define the term you’ve chosen: Why, in other words, is it controversial? What are its implications? Why is your argument important? Make sure your readers care about the topic and give them enough information to understand your position.

USE RELIABLE SOURCES: Your source material adds authority to your argument, so you must specify reliable sources. Source material should contribute something to your paper that you cannot: specific facts, clarification or emphasis of a point, a voice with authority in a specific area, illustration of the controversy or complexity around your issue.

Purpose: Present the issue to readers and develop an argument for the purpose of confirming, challenging, or changing your readers’ views on the issue.

Audience: Most writers compose definitional arguments because they are deeply concerned about the issue. As they develop their argument with their readers in mind, however, writers usually feel challenged to think critically about their own as well as their readers’ feelings and views on the issue.

Writers with strong convictions seek to influence their readers. This is OK, assuming that logical argument will prevail over prejudice. A logical argument ought to present compelling reasons and