Essentially words have two types of meaning: denotations and connotations. Denotations are dictionary definitions. Connotations, on the other hand, are the individual associations we have for words. These connotations can include emotional charges, personal experiences, tastes, and preferences, historical understanding, or any number of tidbits of information that accompany the word in our memory files.
A definition or extended definition essay or paragraph may begin with the denotative definition of a word but focuses primarily on connotative definitions. As mentioned earlier, these extended definitions sometimes offer personal or anecdotal information in order to formulate an accurate explanation of the selected word. Sometimes historical, legal, medical, or some other type of specialized information will be organized and assembled to offer readers a better understanding of a particular word.
Some words that make popular definition topics for students are included in the following list:
Friendship Love Courage Fear
Parenthood Art Dance Teacher
Mother Father Professional Education
Intelligence Success Wisdom Maturity
Childhood Music Literature
Occasionally a definition essay or paragraph will employ a strategy of telling what a word is not in order to arrive at a definition for what it is. Below is an example of such a definition:
What is literature?
When I went off to college as so many
idealistic young people do, I fancied myself a good reader...and a well-read one
at that. After all, I had read a couple of Shakespearean plays, memorized
a sonnet or two. I'd read everything available in the way of Gothic
Romance. I read Stephen King while my hair was drying every morning at
5:30. While I had read Gone With the Wind nearly a dozen times, the
truth is, I had read very little literature. Until my college literature
experience, I had somehow confused reading with a form of entertainment.
What I found out was that due to the necessary thematic value of literature, it
is not essentially entertaining.
True literature is not about making us laugh at characters or their situations; it is about making us laugh at ourselves. William Faulkner's Bundren family in As I Lay Dying is humorous because it is representative of dark areas in human consciousness. We laugh at the story only because we see ourselves in some of the characters' actions and motives. Faulkner's writing is dark humor; so is the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. We laugh because often the characters, like us, have such pathetic lives. In other words, we laugh in order to avoid crying.
True literature does not take place in haunted houses, does not tell of rabid dogs or cars with self-generating parts. The settings in literature are backdrops. Timeframes and venues are established to provide insight into regional values and to lend historical validity. While Stephen King uses songs on the radio (and invariably a small town in Maine) to establish settings, Faulkner creates elaborate maps, interjects regional dialects, authenticates with dilapidated shacks and dried-up creek beds. King's characters and settings are secondary to the supernatural. Faulkner's on the other hand work together to create an abysmal world that, unfortunately, really exists.
True literature is not over when the book is finished. It plants a psychological seed that takes root, sprouts, and thrives within its perfect new habitat--the human mind. Readers may discount the horrors of King, the clowns that won't die, the vampires that overrun northern towns; Faulkner's horrors are real. Poverty, jealousy, hatred, greed, lust--these are the horrors of life. The stench of Addie Bundren's decaying body is a real stench that conveys a deeper meaning in that it represents the rapid decay of her family now that she is dead.
I've still not fully accustomed myself to the fact that there are no true happy endings in literature. I still find myself bogged-down by the details put together by authors who in their day were paid by the word. More words in literature do not mean more story; they mean a more in-depth telling of a story. I have to admit, however, that I take little pleasure in reading a book written primarily for entertainment anymore. No, I'll take a book that makes me look long and hard in the mirror at the demons within. Sorry Mr. King, man is still the real monster.
This essay illustrates the idea that literature is not simply fictional books or stories. Instead, it offers a look at life that simple entertainment ignores. It is didactic, even, with its intent to shape human lives through discovery.
One further note in reference to the definition essay, it often employs other methods of development to assist in creating the definition. The above essay uses narration, contrast, illustration, causal analysis, even elements of process to arrive at a definition of the term literature.