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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.

Information words

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.

Overview words

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.

Analysis words

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.

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