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Essay questions: terms & phrases

Particular terms and phrases regularly appear in essay questions.

This article is intended to act as a guide as to what those terms mean and what they are directing you to do.

Argue

Support a viewpoint using evidence and logical reasoning.
Don’t simply describe the issue, by recounting what you know.
Acknowledge the limitations of your position. Define any key terms or concepts.

Account for

Explain and/or give reasons for the presence of something.
Reply to the question ‘why?’
Again DON’T just describe.

Analyse

Dissect the point in question into its key components.
Identify and explain any relationships which exist between these components.

Assess

Adopt a position upon the issue.
Give a verdict on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular person, perspective, technique, etc.
Provide supporting evidence and/or logical reasoning and note the limitations of your own position.

Compare

Note the similarities AND differences.
Usually the emphasis will be upon similarities, but not necessarily.
Assess the degree to which those similarities and differences are always present.
E.g. In different time periods, places, or from the perspective of key writers the degree
of contrast may be seen to be or actually be quite different.

Contrast

Note the differences AND similarities.
Usually the emphasis will be upon differences, but not necessarily.
Assess the degree to which those similarities and differences are always present.

Criticise

Judge analytically without bias, clearly stating the strengths and weaknesses.
Usually the emphasis will be upon weaknesses, but not necessarily.

Support your arguments with multiple pieces of evidence and/or logical reasoning.

Discuss

Assess the validity of two or more views on an issue.
Clearly state your own position. Support your arguments with multiple pieces of evidence and/or logical reasoning.

Evaluate

Judge the merits of a particular technique, theory, author, policy etc.
Support your arguments with multiple pieces of evidence and/or logical reasoning. In turn assess the soundness of your evidence.

Explain

Give a clear and detailed account, giving reasons for the existence of a phenomenon.
Support your arguments with evidence and/or logical reasoning.
Highlight and assess any contrary explanations.
E.g. Might a student from a different culture or time draw different conclusions.

Illustrate

Explain or clarify with the use of examples, comparison and/or reasoning.
Define any key terms and concepts.

Interpret

Account for the significance, existence and/or meaning of an occurrence or fact.
Support your arguments with multiple pieces of evidence and/or logical reasoning.

Outline

Describe the causes of an event, the details of a technique, the central ideas of a theory, or whatever. Above an elementary level of education, this is likely to be followed by further directions.

The ideas presented here are not new, but the writing is.
Please consider helping to improve the quality of this article and give other readers the benefit of your wisdom by leaving a comment.

Inspiring ideas may be incorporated into future articles.

Thank you.
S J Tonge

2 Responses to “Essay questions: terms & phrases”

  1. Anon says:

    What does ‘how far’ mean?

  2. S J Tonge says:

    ‘How far’ in the context of an academic question is usually asking you to give a balanced considered opinion as to what extent, how much or to what degree a statement, idea or theory is true or untrue.

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