Should you use Dictionary Definitions in Essays? (Answered)

Should you use Dictionary Definitions in Essays

Dictionary definitions are commonly used in university papers. It is also very common for teachers to mark you down for using them!

If you’re like me, you use a dictionary website or Wikipedia to find definitions of terms that you don’t understand. It can be very helpful to get your head around an idea.

Even if you use a dictionary or Wikipedia to help yourself understand a term, try not to reference these non-academic sources in your paper.

Below, I outline three reasons students who get top marks don’t use dictionary definitions in essays, and I weave-in some strategies for providing definitions from different sources:

1. Dictionary Definitions are too General. Instead, do this…

Dictionaries are written for the general public. They provide general definitions of ideas, not explanations of ideas from people within your academic field (be it Science, Education, Sociology, Communications, etc.).

Dictionary definitions were written by a group of very smart people (probably linguists) sitting around a room. They were not written by experts on specific terms or concepts.

There’s a good chance the same group of people who wrote the definition of ‘Science’ also wrote the definitions of ‘Scene’ and ‘School’. The chance that they are experts on science, scenes, and schools, however, is very, very low.

It would be much better if you got the definition of ‘Science’ from a scientist, the definition of ‘Scene’ from a media scholar, and the definition of ‘School’ from a professor in Education.

Furthermore, these linguists did not write the definitions of Science, Scene, and School for you to use in your essay.

They wrote them with a more general audience in mind: Children in Grade 3 learning words for the first time, people with English as a second language, or your grandfather doing his crossword puzzle.

To find a clear definition that is accepted in the field in which your degree is situated (Physics? Communications? Economics?) you will need to get that definition from an expert in that same field – not from a general linguist.

Take the term ‘Discourse’. Here’s how a few different people might define this term:


Interaction that communicates ideas between human beings.

Expert Number 1

Verbal, written, textual or symbolic communication

helps to develop widespread social agreement on ideas, concepts,

or topics.

Expert Number 2

The communicative means by which power is communicated, spread, and enacted within societies.

These three definitions of discourse are, technically, all true. But, these definitions exist in different contexts:

  • If you were to write a 5th Grade essay on the term ‘discourse’, the dictionary definition would probably be great;
  • If you were to write a 100-level undergraduate essay in a Communications course, the definition by Expert 1 would probably work out okay;
  • If you were to write a postgraduate essay in a Sociology course, the definition by Expert 2 would likely be the only one your professor would accept.

By sourcing a definition of a concept in your assigned readings or a textbook on your specific topic, you will get as close as possible to the definition that your teacher probably expects.

It is often a good idea to define terms early in your essay in order to clearly outline the scope of your discussion for your marker. You could, for example, start a sentence or paragraph early in your essay with:

5th Grade Essay

“A general definition of the term ‘discourse’ provided by the Collins Dictionary is …”

Undergrad Communications Essay

“For the purposes of this essay, the meaning of discourse employed by communications scholar John Fiske will be used. According to Fiske, discourse is…”

Postgrad Sociology Essay

“Discourse is used in Sociological inquiry in various ways. Post-structural scholars such as Michel Foucault used the term ‘discourse’ to explain the ways in which power…”

By defining a term not through a dictionary, but in relation to your field of inquiry, you will start to grow your marks and look as if you have an in-depth understanding of your field of inquiry.

2. Dictionary Definitions are not Analytical. Instead, do this…

There are very few words that can be defined in one sentence.

Most words are defined and contested by different scholars. Some see it one way, some see it another. It is very hard to find one, an overarching definition that explains exactly how a word is used by everyone who comes across it.

Above, I provided three different definitions of a term and some examples of how they might be used in an essay.

One way to really show off your critical thinking skills is to provide several different definitions of a term and compare them.

Let’s take the example of the term ‘power’. This term is very much contested in nearly every field of inquiry. To be brief, Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre would likely argue for days about what power is and how it operates in society.

Marx would contest that it is exercised by the powerful to oppress the weak; Sartre would contest that we all have some power in every situation in our lives, no matter how weak we are.

Here’s an outline of how you might want to be analytical in examining definitions at university:

1. Provide Expert definition Number 1.

2. Provide Expert definition Number 2.

3. Compare the two definitions.

Here, you can write one paragraph that goes well beyond just defining a term. By following these three steps, you are showing that:

  • You have an understanding of two definitions of a term;
  • You have an understanding that different people have different definitions;
  • You have been analytical in showing how the two definitions differ.

3. It looks like you didn’t read Academic Sources. Try this instead:

Somewhere between 10% and 50% of all essays I read appear to be Essay-by-Google. That is, it’s clear the student didn’t read any assigned readings, textbooks, or journal articles in writing their essay.

These essays look like the student sat down 5 days before the due date, opened up Google, and started writing away. Teachers can tell because there are a lot of websites and, yes, dictionaries listed in the reference list.

No student is going to get a top mark when it looks like they wrote their essay by google.

If you want to make it look like you actually put effort into your essay, you want to avoid the appearance that you dug up the closes dictionary and copied down the definition.

Instead, always aim to find definitions from academic sources – preferably textbooks. Textbooks provide good, clear, and specific definitions for your area of inquiry.

So next time you want to provide a definition of a term, dig up a textbook, not a dictionary.

Now you know … Here’s how to Grow Your Grades:

Dictionary Definitions in Essays

Dictionary definitions are commonly used in essays right up to postgraduate level studies. You’re not going to fail if you use one, but you’ll never be a top student either.

Here, I have offered three reasons why you shouldn’t use dictionary definitions:

  1. Dictionary definitions are too general
  2. Dictionary definitions are not Analytical
  3. It looks like you didn’t read Academic Sources

Top students never use dictionary definitions. If you want to be a top student, you need to start finding new academic sources for your definitions. Here are two key points that I’ve outlined in this post to help you grow your marks when using definitions:

  • Get definitions of terms from textbooks in your field of study. Check out our post on how to find scholarly articles if you can’t find them!;
  • If you find two definitions, provide both of them;
  • Compare definitions if you find several that disagree. How are they different?

To finish off, I want to give you one more reason not to use dictionary definitions that overrules the rest:

  1. Teachers hate Them

Even if you disagree with me and think dictionary definitions are great, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of teachers don’t like dictionary definitions. They will mark you down for using them.

That alone should steer you away from ever using a dictionary definition in your essay ever again.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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