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Essay Terms

Before writing an essay response, it is important to understand exactly what is being asked. There are certain key words in every question that tell you what information the professor is asking for and how to format your response.

This list of common key words and their definitions may help answer that common question, “So what am I really supposed to do?”

Analyze

Take apart and examine closely.

Compare

Look for similarities and differences; stress similarities.

Contrast

Look for differences and similarities; stress differences.

Critique

Point out both positive and negative aspects.

Define

Explain what something means.

Describe

Show what something looks like, including physical features. It can also mean to give an account or narrate.

Discuss

Argue for and against. Mention different groups or individuals involved and the viewpoint of each. State evidence supporting a viewpoint, as well as evidence contrary to it.

Evaluate

Make a value judgment according to some clear criteria.

Explain

Clarify or interpret how something works or happens.

Illustrate

Show by means of example, picture, or diagram.

Interpret

Explain how or why; implies some subjective judgments.

Justify

Argue in support of something to find positive reasons.

List

Order facts, attributes, or items in sequence. This usually means to arrange certain facts in 1, 2, 3 or bulleted order.

Outline

Organize according to hierarchy and/or category.

Prove

Demonstrate by use of logic, fact, or example.

Review

Reexamine the main points or highlights of something.

State

Reiterate a point or series of points from the text.

Summarize

Present the main points.

Synthesize

Combine or pull together pieces or concepts.

Trace

Present an outline; show a sequence of how or why something occurs or happens.

Updated by Elizabeth Guiden
January 2005

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