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Understanding Essay Terms

Author: Pencil Case  Date: 22 August 2019

Understand the terms = Understand the essay

One of the areas that students often struggle with is understanding exactly what the essay question is asking. The list below shows many of the key words used in essays and it is well worth the effort to have a good understanding of these words.

Understanding Essay Terms

Compare: Examine qualities, or characteristics, to discover resemblances. "Compare" is usually stated as "compare with": you are to emphasise similarities, although differences may be mentioned.

Contrast: Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.

Criticise: Express your judgement or correctness or merit. Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.

Define: Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required but limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.

Describe: In a descriptive answer you should recount, characterise, sketch or relate in narrative form.

Diagram: For a question which specifies a diagram you should present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. Generally the student is also expected to label the diagram and in some cases to add a brief explanation or description.

Discuss: The term discuss, which appears often in essay questions, directs you to examine, analyse carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and entailed answer.

Enumerate: The word enumerate specifies a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, in concise form, the points required.

Evaluate: In an evaluation question you are expected to present a careful appraisal of the problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.

Explain: In explanatory answers it is imperative that you clarify, elucidate, and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the "how or why," reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes. The aim is to make plain the conditions which give rise to whatever you are examining.

Illustrate: A question which asks you to illustrate usually required you to explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.

Interpret: An interpretation question is similar to one requiring explanation. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgement or reaction to the problem.

Justify: When you are instructed to justify your answer you must prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.

List: Listing is similar to enumeration. You are expected in such questions to present an itemised series or tabulation. Such answers should always be given in concise form.

Outline: An outline answer is organised description. You should give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.

Prove: A question which requires proof is one which demands confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.

Relate: In a question which asks you to show the relationship or to relate, your answer should emphasise connections and associations in descriptive form.

Review: A review specifies a critical examination. You should analyse and comment briefly in organised sequence upon the major points of the problem.

State: In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present you are called upon to express the high points in brief, clear narrative form. Details and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.

Summarise: When you are asked to summarise or present a summarisation, you should give in condensed form the main points or facts. All details, illustrations and elaboration are to be omitted.

Trace: When a question asks you to trace a course of events, you are to give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin. Such narratives may call for probing or for deduction.


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