The assignment will include statements of fact, but the goal of the essay is to establish something that cannot be empirically verified: the meaning of a word.
As you may have experienced when composing the Fact Paper, our ability to make an argument is limited when we cannot appeal to values. Contrary to the belief that values diminish the validity of an argument by rendering it mere opinion, values are a necessary part of argument. Indeed, they are the very heart of argument. This is the case in part because evaluative terms are notoriously difficult to define.
To establish what is meant by any evaluative word, we must rely on precedent and context. We can refer to authoritative sources such as dictionaries, but we must also take into account common usage and intent. In the case of words like hot, cold, short, or tall, there may be specific temperatures or heights that we can all agree define that term. There is no such widespread agreement for other evaluative terms, especially cultural values.
Cultural values are key terms to which we appeal again and again when deciding a course of action. They are values that most people would agree are fundamental to our society, even if we cannot agree on their definition. Examples of cultural values are: freedom, happiness, efficiency, maturity, ingenuity, independence, health, security, life, criminality, responsibility, and sustainability.
This assignment is designed to give you practice in another technique of persuasive writing, that of defining a cultural value or other key term in such a way that seems credible to your reader. Your ability to credibly define your terms will help you to contribute to a range of public discourse in influential ways.
Identify an instance in a document, broadcast, or conversation in which the meaning an author assigns to a word is debatable. You are not looking for an instance in which someone uses a term incorrectly, such as using the word “antidote” to refer to a short story. Rather, you are looking for an instance in which a person applies a word to an object or situation and you disagree with the person’s evaluation of that object or situation.
When you have your example, then answer for yourself the following question: Why is it important to dispute the meaning of that word? Your answer to that question will eventually become the thesis of your paper.
Begin your essay by summarizing your example, presenting your thesis, and previewing your definition of the disputed word. Following your introduction, present your research on your word that supports the usage for which you advocate.
There are a number of ways to establish a precedent for a preferred meaning of a term, including reference to a dictionary, though that reference should not be limited to Merriam Webster’s.
You can trace the etymology of your word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is available electronically via the university library: http://catalog.sjlibrary.org/record=b1879016~S1 (Links to an external site.)
Other dictionaries you can search include:
Another way to establish the meaning of a term is to show how others use it, even if that usage is common only to a certain group of people. To do this, you will need to compile examples of others using your word in the manner for which you advocate. This research might include reference to the term’s equivalent in other languages.
A third strategy for establishing the meaning of a term is to define related terms. For instance, if you are establishing the meaning of maturity, you may also want to define experienced, responsible, and established.
After establishing a precedent for your preferred meaning, explain the difference it will make to use that meaning over another. In this section of the paper, you will want to provide specific examples of how the word’s meaning can or will influence decision-making and social action.
Conclude your paper with a brief summary of your argument and re-statement of your thesis.