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Essay terms explained


Essay terms explained

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To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides:  Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.

Essay termDefinition
AnalyseBreak an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
AssessWeigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
ClarifyLiterally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment uponPick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
ConsiderSay what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
ContrastSimilar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluateGive your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
DefineTo give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, with examples to illustrate.
DescribeProvide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
DiscussEssentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
ElaborateTo give in more detail, provide more information on.
EvaluateSee the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
ExamineLook in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
ExplainClarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
ExploreAdopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account ofMeans give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
IdentifyDetermine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
IllustrateA similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
InterpretDemonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
JustifyMake a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
OutlineConvey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
ReviewLook thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show howPresent, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
StateTo specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
SummariseGive a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extentEvokes a similar response to questions containing ‘How far…‘. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.


Dhann, S., (2001) How to … ‘Answer assignment questions’. Accessed 12/09/11.

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11.


Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08.


Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11






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Explanatory, otherwise known as expository, writing presents a particular viewpoint or reports a certain event or situation. It explains the viewpoint or situation in detail and attempts to clarify any confusing or difficult to interpret facts. Rather than criticism or argument, analysis is the main goal evident in an explanatory essay. This analysis can be achieved by comparison, contrast, definition or example. This type of essay is commonly assigned as a classroom evaluation tool.

Introduction and Clear Thesis

The introduction of your essay should describe the problem, event or issue as clearly as possible. Be straightforward. State your thesis clearly and concisely. Make sure that your thesis is appropriate for the guidelines of the assignment. Since the thesis statement drives the rest of the paper, it is important that it can be easily supported with facts. Thesis statements for expository or explanatory essays should not take a position or voice an opinion. For example, “Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric engine starter changed the landscape of American automobile travel.”

Body Paragraphs and Support

Supporting paragraphs should address the thesis statement. Each paragraph should include only one general idea or supporting detail. This helps the essay remain clear and ensures greater readability for your audience. Before beginning your supporting paragraphs, ensure you have proper sources that will enable you to contribute sufficient evidence to back up your claim. In the Charles Kettering example, details such as the increase in sales realized by General Motors after utilizing Kettering’s starter would be appropriate to include in a body paragraph.


Although explanatory essays by nature must stick to the facts, creativity cannot be underestimated. You want your reader to remember your essay. Try to find little-known or particularly interesting facts to help support your thesis. This will ensure that you will leave a lasting impression on your audience. For example, in the Kettering example, it might be interesting to note that sales of cars to women increased dramatically after the electric self-starter was implemented.


The conclusion of your essay must be effective and logical. No new information should be introduced at this point. Synthesize all of the information and evidence you have used throughout the course of your essay. A main thread should emerge as you analyze the information you have presented thus far. That main thread will be your conclusion, which should reinforce your thesis.

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About the Author

Alicia Anthony is a seasoned educator with more than 10 years classroom experience in the K-12 setting. She holds a Master of Education in literacy curriculum and instruction and a Bachelor of Arts in communications. She is completing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing: fiction, and working on a novel.

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