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Decoding the Question (Definitions)

Here are just a few keywords that appear in questions that suggest how you should organize or set-up your response. In addition having a good sense of exactly what the question asks you to do will help you to know what to include in your answer. Below are some keywords commonly found in an essay question. Use them to classify what the question is asking you to do.

Compare (evaluate, contrast, balance): First, find a few central components or aspects that are similar and different. Second, detail the variations in each aspect.

Contrast (difference, dissimilarity, distinction, disparity): Similar to comparison. The added constraint with contrast is that ONLY differences should be detailed. That is, compare in such a way as to show differences.

Criticize (appraise, evaluate, analyze, assess): Criticizing demands judgment, requires a commitment to not agreeing with some position presented, and calls for presenting reasons for disagreement with the position.

Define (name, label, identify): Give special characteristics by which a concept, thing, or event can be recognized. Tell what it is, and what it is not. Place it in its general class, and then differentiate it from other members of that class. Defining requires boundaries, not details.

Describe (explain, illustrate, express, tell): No need for generalizations; just list the features as concisely as possible with details.

Discuss (talk about, argue) or Examine (look at, observe): This is the most vague of all keywords and allows for virtually any type of response. Begin by deciding on a more specific course of language action, probably several, since discussion always demands a large answer. You can quote, then refute, then offer a counter-statement, then prove or illustrate it, and so on.

Evaluate (appraise, estimate) - Assess (measure, consider, calculate): This similar to criticize, but allows you to present more than one view on the position. Use care to signal your changes when you move to presenting an argument for a different point of view.

Explain (make clear, give details): Asks for relationships: causal, temporal, systematic. Explain asks for the “how” and the “why”. Make clear and intelligible the reasons for, or the basic principles of something. May require you to account for differences of opinion or bad connections between theory and data.

Illustrate (demonstrate, show): Use details and/or examples to show relationships and interactions. The goals are to find and present supporting details, and to show how it supports. May use concrete examples to explain or clarify the essential attributes of concept.

Interpret (decode, decipher, figure out): Translate what something means. Explain what the author means.

Prove (verify or attest) or validate (confirm, endorse): Define the proposition to be proven, then give reasons for believing it. Provide enough good reasons to convince a reader.

Synthesize (blend, combine, integrate): Summarize, or condense. Describe the main points, omit minor details. May ask you to summarize the work of more than one person to show common parts.

courtesy of the Writing Center