Glossary of Essay Terms

Glossary of Essay Terms

A complete glossary of key terms essay for English-speaking students. The list is constantly updated with new terms – do not hesitate to contact us if you have any other conditions to add here. Suggests, helps to correct errors and to introduce new terms

Essay term Definition
Analyse Break 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.
Assess Weigh 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.
Clarify Literally 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 upon Pick 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.
Compare Identify 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.
Consider Say 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.
Contrast Similar 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 evaluate Give 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.
Define To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
Demonstrate Show how, with examples to illustrate.
Describe Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
Discuss Essentially 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.
Elaborate To give in more detail, provide more information on.
Evaluate See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
Examine Look 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.
Explain Clarify 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.
Explore Adopt 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 of Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
Identify Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
Illustrate A 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.
Interpret Demonstrate 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.
Justify Make 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.
Outline Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
Review Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show how Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
State To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
Summarise Give 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 extent Evokes 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.


Table of task words
Words What they (might) mean…
Account for Explain, clarify, give reasons for. (Quite different from “Give an account of which is more like ‘describe in detail’).
Analyse Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
Assess Consider the value or importance of something, paying due attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.
Argue Make a case, based on appropriate evidence for and/or against some given point of view.
Comment on Too vague to be sure, but safe to assume it means something more than ‘describe’ or ‘summarise’ and more likely implies ‘analyse’ or ‘assess’.
Compare Identify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (but probably pointing out their differences as well).
Contrast Point out the difference between two things (but probably point out their similarities as well).
Criticise Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances of how the criteria apply in this case.
Define Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from similar things.
Describe Spell out the main aspects of an idea or topic or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
Discuss Investigate or examine by argument. Examine key points and possible interpretations, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against. Draw a conclusion.
Evaluate Make an appraisal or the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth; include your personal opinion. Like ‘assess’.
Enumerate List some relevant items, possibly in continuous prose (rather than note form) and perhaps ‘describe’ them (see above) as well.
Examine Present in depth and investigate the implications.
Explain Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to ‘describe’ and to ‘analyse’ (see above).
To what extent…? Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of ‘assess’ and ‘criticise’ (see above), probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.
How far Similar to ‘to what extent…?’ (see above)
Identify Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use.
Illustrate Similar to ‘explain’ (see above), but probably asking for the quoting of specific examples or statistics or possibly the drawing of maps, graphs, sketches etc.
Interpret Clarify something or ‘explain’ (see above), perhaps indicating how the thing relates to some other thing or perspective.
Justify Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to ‘argue’ (see above) a case.
Outline Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
Prove Demonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.
Reconcile Show how two apparently opposed or mutually exclusive ideas or propositions can be seen to be similar in important respects, if not identical. Involves need to ‘analyse’ and ‘justify’ (see above).
Relate  Either ‘explain’ (see above) how things happened or are connected in a cause-and-effect sense, or may imply ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ (see above).
Review Survey a topic, with the emphasis on ‘assess’ rather than ‘describe’ (see above).
State Express the main points of an idea or topic, perhaps in the manner of ‘describe’ or ‘enumerate’ (see above).
Summarise ‘State’ (see above) the main features of an argument, omitting all superfluous detail and side-issues.
Trace Identify the connection between one thing and another either in a developmental sense over a period of time, or else in a cause and effect sense. May imply both ‘describe’ and ‘explain’ (see above).


Other useful definitions
Words What they (might) mean…
Assumption Something which is accepted as being true for the purpose of an argument.
Issue An important topic for discussion; something worth thinking and raising questions about.
Methodology A system of methods and principles for doing something. Often used to explain methods for carrying out research.
Objective It is the point or the thing aimed at. It is what you want to achieve by a particular activity.




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