Essay terms explained

Study guide

To write a good essay, you need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic. Take particular notice of and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001). These instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these words is the first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the typical words you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance. They are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

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Essay termDefinition
Analyse Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part. Then consider arguments for and against each part.
Assess Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research. Remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
Clarify Make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory. Or, you may need to set out the relationship between two (or more) variables.
Comment upon Select the main points on a subject and give your opinion. Reinforce your point of view using argument. You should reference relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
Compare Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
Consider Say what you think and have observed about something. Support your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
Contrast Similar to compare but with a focus on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena. You might consider what sets the ideas apart from one another. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluate Give your verdict of the extent to which a statement or findings within a piece of research are true. You may need to state to what extent you agree with them. Support your discussion with evidence taken from a wide range of sources. Make sure to consider sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion. In doing so, base your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors. Finally, justify how you have made your choice.
Define To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Highlight any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
Demonstrate Show how, with examples to illustrate.
Describe Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
Discuss This is a written debate. You will use skills of reasoning, backed up by evidence. The aim is to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
Elaborate To give in more detail, provide more information on.
Evaluate See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
Examine Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation. Thus, you should try to offer reasons why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important. You will also need to explain the different ways they could be understood.
Explain Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account of how and why it occurs. Or, you may need to set out what a term means in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity. You may need to describe complex procedures or sequences of events. Define key terms where appropriate, and support your points with relevant research.
Explore Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account of Give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
Identify Determine the key points to be addressed and the implications of these points.
Illustrate A similar instruction to ‘explain’. You will need to show the workings of something. You should offer definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
Intepret Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
Justify Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. Present a balanced argument by considering opinions which are different to your own. Finally, state your conclusion.
Outline Convey the main points. Place emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
Review Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show how Present, in a logical order the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something. Support this presentation with evidence.
State To specify in clear terms the key aspects of a topic without being too descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
Summarise Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extent Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.

Questions to ask about interpreting essay titles

These are suggested questions to ask before you begin to write your essay, but also during the review and editing process.

  • Have I identified absolutely every element of the title?
  • Have I thought carefully about the implications of every element of the title?
  • Have I spent enough time considering different possibilities for structuring the essay?
  • Have I decided on an essay structure that will address each aspect of the title appropriately?
  • Does the structure I have chosen give me the best chance of writing a good essay?
  • Have I identified where I need to focus my reading?
  • Have I planned what information I am looking for when I do the background reading?
  • Am I sure that I am not missing anything important in my interpretation of the title?

Be Alert! These are not necessarily the only questions you need to ask.


Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. (Accessed: 12 September 2011).

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. (Accessed: 12 September 2011).

Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. (Accessed: 22 February 2008).

Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. (Accessed: 12 September 2011).

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