Essay Writing Glossary

The following is a glossary of some of the technical words used in this book.

Body: The main part of your essay is sometimes called the body. It’s the essay minus the introduction and conclusion.

Citation: A citation is a reference to the work of somebody else. You put a citation whenever you use the ideas of somebody else. Citations are not the same as quotations.

Conclusion: The final part of your essay is the conclusion. It is the part where the essay is brought to an end. A conclusion often summarizes the main arguments of an essay, and presents a view or opinion that is reached after considering different aspects.

Content words: These are words in the essay question that tell you what to write about. They often also tell you (sometimes indirectly) what sources or texts to use. They are not the same as the process words.

Definition: A definition is a short explanation of what a term or concept means. It focuses on the main aspects or components.

Essay: An essay is an analytic piece of work. It is usually divided into an introduction, the main argument (body), and a conclusion.

Example: see illustration

Full references: see reference

Heading: This describes the style of a line that is set apart from the rest of the text. The heading indicates what the section immediately following is about. Smaller headings are called subheading.

Illustration: These are examples that you include in your essay to make the text more approachable. Illustrations link the abstract argument with practical examples. Illustrations in this context don’t normally refer to pictures.

In-text reference: see reference

Introduction: The introduction of an essay is the opening section. It outlines what the essay is about, and serves to indicate how the essay question is answered in the remainder of the essay.

Linking word: Linking words are words and phrases that join different parts of the essay. They can link sentences, paragraphs, or even sections. Such words include however, in contrast, on the other hand, but, or furthermore.

m-dash: This is a long dash used in printed works (— sign).

Marker: Your essay is marked and graded by a person. Depending on the course and institution, this may be your tutor, your supervisor, or a teaching assistant.

Memo: This is usually a shorter piece of writing with specific content. Unlike an essay, a memo is geared towards highlighting certain aspects, such as the social mechanisms involved in a chosen topic.

n-dash: This is a long dash used in printed works (– sign). It is shorter than the m-dash, but longer than a hyphen (- sign).

Outline: An outline is a short and tentative overview of what the essay is about. Only the main points and arguments are included.

Paragraph: This is a distinct subdivision in a text. In your essay, you should break up the text into several paragraphs. Each paragraph develops a separate thought, and makes one statement only.

Process words: These are words in the essay question that tell you how to approach and structure your answer. For example, discuss is a process word. Process words are not the same as content words.

Question: The essay question is a short indication of what your essay should be about. It outlines the subject and often gives instructions how to approach the answer.

Quotation: A quotation is the use of the exact words of somebody else’s words. Quotations are usually put between speech marks to indicate that they are not your own words. They are also known as quotes, but are not the same as citations.

Reference: This is a short note included in the text indicating to the reader where a citation or quotation originates. A common form of referencing is a note in brackets where the author and year of publication are given. Full references are given at the end of the essay, providing further information. An in-text reference allows identifying the full reference at the end. The full reference, in turn, allows identifying the work used.

Report: A report is a piece of writing that differs from essays. It is usually more focused in making points and outlining the findings, and less on developing the arguments. Sometimes bullet points are used.

Structure: The structure of an essay describes how it’s built, how the different parts of the essay link together to create the complete essay. Your essay should include an introduction, a section defining key terms, a main part (body), and a conclusion. Within these parts, your essay should be divided into logical sections, consisting of separate paragraphs.

Subheading: This is a heading that is of lower importance than a heading. Technically still a heading, a subheading is set apart from main headings, such as by being set in a smaller font.

Summary: A summary is a brief statement of the main points or arguments of your essay, or the section summarized.

Next: References cited

Understanding the meaning of words, especially task words, helps you to know exactly what is being asked of you. It takes you half way towards narrowing down your material and selecting your answer.

Task words direct you and tell you how to go about answering a question. Here is a list of such words and others that you are most likely to come across frequently in your course.

Table of task words
WordsWhat they (might) mean...
Account forExplain, clarify, give reasons for. (Quite different from "Give an account of which is more like 'describe in detail').
AnalyseBreak an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
AssessConsider 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.
ArgueMake a case, based on appropriate evidence for and/or against some given point of view.
Comment onToo vague to be sure, but safe to assume it means something more than 'describe' or 'summarise' and more likely implies 'analyse' or 'assess'.
CompareIdentify the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common (but probably pointing out their differences as well).
ContrastPoint out the difference between two things (but probably point out their similarities as well).
CriticiseSpell 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.
DefineMake a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from similar things.
DescribeSpell out the main aspects of an idea or topic or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
DiscussInvestigate or examine by argument. Examine key points and possible interpretations, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against. Draw a conclusion.
EvaluateMake an appraisal or the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth; include your personal opinion. Like 'assess'.
EnumerateList some relevant items, possibly in continuous prose (rather than note form) and perhaps 'describe' them (see above) as well.
ExaminePresent in depth and investigate the implications.
ExplainTell 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. 
InterpretClarify something or 'explain' (see above), perhaps indicating how the thing relates to some other thing or perspective.
JustifyExpress valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to 'argue' (see above) a case.
OutlineIndicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
ProveDemonstrate the truth of something by offering irrefutable evidence and/or logical sequence of statements leading from evidence to conclusion.
ReconcileShow 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).
StateExpress 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.
TraceIdentify 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
WordsWhat they (might) mean...
AssumptionSomething which is accepted as being true for the purpose of an argument.
IssueAn important topic for discussion; something worth thinking and raising questions about.
MethodologyA system of methods and principles for doing something. Often used to explain methods for carrying out research.
ObjectiveIt is the point or the thing aimed at. It is what you want to achieve by a particular activity.


Maddox, H 1967, How to Study, 2nd ed, Pan Books, London.

Marshall, L., & Rowland, F 1998, A guide to learning independently, Addison Wesley Longman, Melbourne.

Northedge, A 1997, The good study guide, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

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