P02: Definition/Categorical Argument

Definition (or Categorical) Argument

Your first Short Argument, due before class WED FEB 14, will make a definition or categorical argument essential to your Research Position Paper, which itself will be due before you know it. You’ll write three short papers in preparation for that longer assignment, each one proving something essential about your Research Argument.

This first of these, the Definition or Categorical Argument, will define a term essential to proving your thesis. Understandably, you may still be refining your thesis and gathering valuable sources, still determining the exact parameters of your argument. That is understood. It is also understood that not everything can wait until the end of the semester, and that writing and refining a research paper is shooting at a moving target. What you’ll do in your short arguments may be more or less relevant to your final argument depending on how little or how much your thesis changes between now and the end of April. What you’ll aim at in your short paper is today’s target, however shaped, wherever placed (and since it’s moving, you’ll have to aim a bit ahead of it).

Works Cited
You’ll need to cite two sources for this first formal argument, which you may or may not already have described in your White Paper. You’ll produce a Works Cited for those named sources. Check the links you provide to be sure they lead back to a page we can all access (even if it’s the page in the databases that “launches” the actual document).

I’ve posted a Model Works Cited and linked it to the P02: Definition Essay category and the Writing Help category.

How Can A Definition Be An Argument?
Good question. Let’s say we’re reading an essay by a columnist who has just had to have her apartment wired for internet service for the first time, after years of casually, almost thoughtlessly, logging on to the non-password-protected networks of subscribers in neighboring apartments. She’s never thought of herself as a thief. She’s never thought much about her actions at all; as long as service was available, and free, and she could access it without paying a service provider, she did so, perhaps with gratitude, perhaps with a sense of entitlement.

When the day came that her neighbors locked her out with passwords or moved or migrated to smart phones and unplugged themselves from their own networks, this columnist reports, she awakened from her mindlessness and faced a new reality: the internet isn’t free in the way she’d grown accustomed to thinking of it. It’s a valuable service that costs billions to the providers who expect to be paid for it. She hadn’t been merely sharing what was offered out of generosity to the world. She’d been stealing. She had to re-define what “theft” meant and what “free internet” meant. The internet is a commercial service that somebody is buying (in this case her neighbors) and sharing with others. If they’re sharing willingly, the service is a gift or an inducement. If they’re sharing unwillingly, or without knowing they’re sharing, it’s theft of service.

A one-sentence definition of “free internet” from the author’s new perspective is a tiny little definition essay all by itself: The internet is free to anybody whose conscience doesn’t prohibit her from stealing service from somebody who’s paying for it.

We could argue about her definition. And that’s the point. Definition is argument. Your definition essay will argue for a particular definition and establish the terms under which the rest of your proof will be conducted.

As you work on your own research projects, stay alert to the terms you think are perfectly understood, but which in fact require your readers’ cooperation. For further clarification, here’s an example of how short arguments must be proved before long arguments can be considered complete.

An Essay Desperately In Need of a Definition

Here’s an example you can examine in detail by reading the actual source. It’s about public sector pensions, a topic being hotly debated all across the country, and which has been particularly contentious in New Jersey since the current Governor took charge of a state scrambling desperately to balance its budget in a time of fiscal crisis.

The story is that former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman took money from the public employees’ pension fund and used it to lower taxes, then borrowed money and gambled it in the stock market to try to repay what she’d taken. Read the article “But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There,” and then come back.

The article makes a persuasive argument that public sector employees are not responsible for current budget shortfalls. What it desperately needs, though, if it wants to make its broader point—that the state of New Jersey owes money back to the pension fund—is a clear definition of the state’s fiduciary responsibility to that fund.

  • Is the state obligated to keep those funds locked in a box, free from deflation or loss of any kind?
  • Or is the state obligated to invest that money in instruments that will grow the money to pay future obligations?
  • If so, is the state allowed to choose the stock market to invest in?
  • In other words, did Governor Whitman play within the rules, or did she steal from the employees?

Notice we’re not defining the term pension fund, although the term might be a good candidate for a Definition Essay for a different research project. We’re not defining state, or fiduciary, or the fund. What requires clarification is the concept people like to toss around when they’re debating the topic: The state’s responsibility. “The Governor thumbed her nose at the state’s fiduciary responsibility to the pension fund,” they say, without ever defining that responsibility. Defining the state’s responsibility (or identifying what sort of responsibilities fall into the category: the state’s fiduciary responsibility to its employee’s pension funds), is a good example of a Definition Essay.


  • Write your first Shorter Argument paper.
  • The paper will take the form of a Definition (or Category) Argument, as described above.
  • For example, define a term such as stem cell not just biologically, but also politically, since people use the term for advance particular social agendas.
  • Or, for example, define a concept such as the perfect study to prove that violent game play causes players to act violently, since only when the perfect study is defined can the author test existing studies for compliance.
  • Define your term(s) or concept(s) thoroughly but concisely in 1,000 words. Padding with wasted words is prohibited.
  • Include Works Cited.
  • Title your post Definition Argument—Username.
  • Publish your definition essay in the P02: Definition Argument category.


  • Due TUE FEB 13 by midnight
  • Customary late penalties. (0-24 hours 10%) (24-48 hours 20%) (48+ hours, 0 grade)
  • Portfolio Essay
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