Understanding key words in writing assignments
When you begin working on a writing assignment, it is important to understand exactly what you are being asked to do. Often the assignment description will contain some of the words below; here is an overview of what they mean and what the professor will expect.
These words ask you to show how much you know about a subject by presenting details in an organized, coherent way:
Define: Give concise, clear meanings of a term or phrase; do not give details but make sure to distinguish it from related terms.
State: Present main points in brief, clear sequence.
Illustrate: Use a figure, picture, diagram, analogy, or concrete example to explain or clarify.
Enumerate or List: Write a list or outline that gives points concisely one by one.
These words ask you to present an organized, coherent overview or survey of information:
Describe: Recount, characterize, sketch graphically or relate in sequence or story form.
Summarize: Give main points or facts in condensed form.
Trace: In narrative form, describe process, development, or historical events from a point of origin.
Outline: Organize a description under main points and subordinate points; omit minor details. Emphasize structure/arrangement.
Review: Examine a subject critically, analyzing and commenting on important statements.
Synthesize: Combine separate elements or sources in an organized, coherent and concise manner.
These words ask you to argue a point, develop an interpretation, or make an evaluation using evidence:
Agree or Disagree: Give your opinion about a topic and support it with evidence from appropriate sources.
Analyze: Break down topic into parts and explain how the parts relate to each other and the topic.
Apply: Use concepts or theories in order to explain a problem, issue, event or experience.
Compare and/or contrast: Analyze two or more elements in order to show similarities and/or differences between them.
Critique or Criticize: Express your judgment about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts, and your judgment with a discussion of the evidence.
Discuss: Examine by argument and debate, giving reasons pro and con.
Evaluate: Appraise worth of something in light of its truth or utility; include to a lesser degree your personal opinion.
Interpret: Explain the meaning; make clear and explicit; usually giving your own judgment.
Justify: Prove or give reasons for decisions or conclusions citing evidence.