Skip to content

Essay Key Words Described

TIP Sheet

Alliteration: The repetition of the same sound in successive words, usually, but not necessarily, at the beginning of words: Blown buds of barren flowers...

Apostrophe: A figure of speech in which the absent is addressed as if present, the dead as if alive, or the inanimate and abstract as if animate and concrete: Come, Sleep; O Sleep!

Argumentation: Writing or speaking in which reasons or arguments are presented in a logical way.

Arrangement: The order in which details are placed or organized in a piece of writing.

Audience: Those people who read or hear what you have written; readers to whom a piece of writing is addressed.

Balance: The arranging of words or phrases so that two ideas are given equal emphasis in a sentence or paragraph; a pleasing rhythm created when a pattern is repeated in a sentence.

Body: The paragraphs between the introduction and conclusion that develop the main idea(s) of the writing.

Brainstorming: Collecting ideas by thinking freely and openly about all the possibilities; used often with groups.

Central idea: The main point of a piece of writing, often stated in a thesis statement or topic sentence.

Clincher sentence: The sentence that summarizes the point being made in a paragraph, usually located at the end.

Coherence: The arrangement of ideas in such a way that the reader can easily follow from one point to the next.

Composition: A process in which a writer's ideas are combined into one unified piece of writing.

Deductive reasoning: The act of reasoning from a general idea to a specific point or conclusion.

Definition: (See Extended definition, below)

Description: Writing that paints a colorful picture of a person, place, thing, or idea using vivid sensory details.

Details: The words used to describe a person, support an argument, persuade an audience, explain a process, or in some way support the central idea.

Emphasis: Placing greater stress on the most important idea in a piece of writing by giving it special treatment; emphasis can be achieved by placing the important idea in a special position, by repeating a key word or phrase, or by simply writing more about it.

Essay: A piece of factual writing in which ideas on a single topic are presented, explained, argued, or described in an interesting way.

Exposition: Writing that explains.

Expressive writing: Writing in which the author's primary purpose is to describe or communicate personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions.

Extended definition: Writing that goes beyond a simple definition of a term in order to make a point; it can cover several paragraphs and include personal definitions and experiences, figures of speech, and quotations.

Figurative language: Language that goes beyond the normal meaning of the words used; writing in which a figure of speech is used to heighten or color the meaning.

Focus: Concentration on a specific subject to give it emphasis or importance.

Form: The arrangement of the details into a pattern or style; the way in which the content of writing is organized.

Free writing: Writing openly and freely on any topic; focused free writing is writing openly on a specific topic.

Generalization: An idea or statement which emphasizes general characteristics rather than specific manifestations.

Grammar: The study of the structure and features of language; rules and standards which are to be followed to produce acceptable writing and speaking.

Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which there is conscious exaggeration for the sake of emphasis: His hands dangled a mile out of his sleeves.

Idiom: A phrase or expression which means something other than what the words actually say. An idiom is usually understandable to a particular group of people: Up the Boohai (a New Zealand idiom meaning "all wrong.")

Inductive reasoning: Reasoning which leads one to a conclusion or generalization after examining specific examples or facts; drawing generalizations from specific evidence.

Inverted sentence: A sentence in which the normal word order is inverted or switched, usually so that the verb comes before the subject.

Irony: A figure of speech in which what is meant is emphasized by asserting the opposite: You're going to love what the wrecker did to your car.

Issue: A point or question to be decided.

Jargon: The technical language of a particular group that is inappropriate in most formal writing since it is frequently not understandable by those outside the group.

Journal: A daily record of thoughts, impressions, and autobiographical information, often a source of ideas for writing.

Juxtaposition: Placing two ideas (words or pictures) side by side so that their closeness creates a new, often ironic, meaning.

Limiting the subject: Narrowing the subject to a specific topic that is suitable for the writing or speaking assignment.

Literal: The actual or dictionary meaning of a word; language that means exactly what it appears to mean.

Loaded words: Words that are slanted for or against the subject.

Logic: The science of correct reasoning; correctly using facts, examples, and reasons to support the point.

Malapropism: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (Merriam Webster): "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder"(Richard Daley, former Chicago mayor).

Metaphor: A figure of speech that makes an implied comparison of two unlike things by declaring them to be identical: The ship plowed the seas.

Metonymy: A figure of speech in which one word is used in place of another word that it suggests: He loves to read Dickens (Dickens' work); or the substitution of the part for the whole - I saw fifty sails (ships with sails).

Modifier: A word, phrase, or clause that limits, alters, or describes another word or group of words.

Narration: Writing that tells a story or recounts an event.

Objective: Relating information in an impersonal manner; without interjecting feelings or opinions.

Observation: Paying close attention to people, places, things, and events to collect details for later use.

Onomatopoeia: The use of words in which the sound suggests the sense: The silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain...

Overview: A general idea of what is to be covered in a piece of writing.

Oxymoron: A two-word phrase containing contradictory elements: jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, numb feeling.

Personal narrative: Personal writing that covers an event in the writer's life; it often contains personal comments and ideas as well as a description of the event.

Personification: A figure of speech in which abstract qualities or inanimate and natural objects are given the attributes of human beings: Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful.

Persuasion: Writing that is meant to change the way the reader thinks or acts.

Point of view: The position or angle from which a story is told, for example, first-person ("I"), third-person ("he").

Process: A method of doing something that involves several steps or stages; for example, the writing process involves prewriting, planning, writing, and revising.

Prose: Writing or speaking in the usual or ordinary form; prose becomes poetry when it is given rhyme or rhythm.

Pun: A play upon words of the same sound but of different meanings or upon different meanings of the same word: They went and told the sexton and the sexton tolled the bell.

Purpose: The specific reason a person has for writing; the goal of writing, for example, to inform, entertain, or persuade.

Revision: Changing a piece of writing to improve it in style or content.

Simile: A figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things, using words such as like, as, or than: The fallen leaves wandered like lost children through the empty streets.

Spontaneity: Doing, thinking, or writing without planning.

Subjective: Thinking and writing that includes personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions.

Theme: The central idea in a piece of writing (lengthy writings may have several themes); a term sometimes used to describe a short essay.

Thesis statement: A statement of the purpose, intent, or main idea of an essay.

Tone: The writer's attitude toward the subject; for example, a writer's tone may be light, serious, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, solemn, or objective.

Topic: The specific subject of a piece of writing.

Topic sentence: The sentence that contains the main idea of a paragraph.

Transitions: Words or phrases that help clarify the relationships between ideas and tie them together, for example, nevertheless, moreover, most important, as a result.

Unity: A sense of oneness; writing in which each sentence helps to develop the main idea.

Usage: The way in which people use language; usage may be standard (formal and informal) or nonstandard.

Vivid details: Details which appeal to the senses and help the reader see, feel, smell, taste, and hear the subject.


Most university essay questions include an instructional word in the question. These are the words that tell you what your essay should do. It is important that you understand exactly what these words mean so that you don't misinterpret a question. Below is a list of terms describing actions you may be asked to undertake in your assessment tasks.

You should print this page for future reference because it will help you to analyse the key instruction terms in your future essay questions.

Printable version of the list of instructional words

AnalyseSeparate or break up something into its component parts so that you discover its nature proportion, function, relationship, etc.
CommentMake critical observations, even if they are fairly open-ended. Your texts, learning guide, lecture and discussion notes should provide sufficient guidelines and your own commonsense should prevail.
CompareFind similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations, etc. Ensure you understand exactly what you are being asked to compare.
ContrastFind similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations etc. Focus on the differences.
Examine the topic or argument in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.
CriticiseExpress your judgements regarding the correctness or merit of the factors being considered. Discuss both strong and weak points and give the results of your own analysis. Student insights are expected and arguments must be justified.
DefineProvide concise, clear, authoritative meanings. In such statements, details are not necessarily required, but briefly cite the boundaries or limitations of the definition. Remeber the 'class' to which a things belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in that class.
DescribeRecall facts, processes or events. You are not asked to explain or interpret. Try to provide a thorough description, emphasising the most important points.
DiagramPresent a drawing, chart, plan or graphic representation in your answer. Generally, you are also expected to label the diagram and a brief explanation or description may be required.
DiscussPresent a point of view. This is likely to need both description and interpretation. Your opinion must be supported by carefully chosen and authoritative evidence.
EnumerateProvide a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, but concisely, the points required.
EvaluatePresent a judgement of an issue by stressing both strengths and advantages, and weaknesses and limitations. The emphasis is on assessing the value, worth or relevance of the matter under scrutinty.
ExplainYour main focus should be on the 'why' of a particular issue, or on the 'how' with the aim of clarifying reasons, causes and effects. You are being tested on your capacity to think critically, to exercise perception and discernment.
IllustrateThis asks for an explanation; you may clarify your answer to a problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram or concrete example.
InterpretExplain the meaning of something and give your own judgement of the situation.
ListGive an itemised series or tabulation; such answers should be concise.

OutlineThis asks for an organised description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials, but omit minor details. Present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
ProveTo conform or verify. You should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence, or by logical reasoning.
RelateWhen showing relationships, your answer should emphasise connection and associations in a descriptive manner.
ReviewRe-examine, analyse and comment briefly (in an organised sequence) on the major points of an issue.
StateExpress the high points in brief and clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.
SummariseProvide a brief statement or an account covering the main points; omit details.
TraceGive the development, process or history of a thing, event or idea, especially by proceeding from the latest to the earliest evidence.

Source: Adapted from Bate, D. 1979, Essay Method and English Expression, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Group, Sydney.

These are very important words and you must be clear about their meaning. For example, an essay that asks you to describe a topic is very different to an essay that asks you analyse a topic. Use this table to help you analyse the instructional words in your essay questions.


© Copyright 2000
Comments and questions should
be directed to