Archive for April, 2007|Monthly archive page

Definition Paragraph



To define a word, use a dictionary, a collection of simple definitions, usually including synonyms. The dictionary might define the word banal by using the synonym commonplace. It might also define a word by class.

The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, says that a martini is “A cocktail of gin or vodka and dry vermouth.” A cocktail manual might take this definition further by writing “A Gibson is a martini with an onion instead of an olive.”

Many dictionary definitions include the class to which the word belongs.
Some terms, however, are too complex for simple definitions. To define behavior modification, for example, you would have to write a definition paragraph.

A definition paragraph may elaborate a simple definition by going into more detail about the synonyms and class or subclass to which the term belongs. It may give examples, or it may detail a process. It may even define by negation—by saying what the term is not.
Begin your definition paragraph with the term to be defined, then devote the body of the paragraph to explaining that term.

My strangest job after college was my year and a half apprenticeship at a photo-retouching studio. Most people don’t know that every model in a fashion magazine, every soup can in a magazine ad, even many newspaper photos, are retouched. Before the advent of Photoshop, photo-retouchers, using brushes and paints and dyes and bleaches, did all the work by hand. They might have made small changes, such as darkening the ice cubes and erasing bubbles in a photo of a glass of Coca Cola. Or they might have radically changed a supermodel’s dress size and hair color. I once watched a retoucher shave thirty pounds from a chubby Bette Midler photograph for the cover of her Thighs and Whispers album. This was no easy task—Ms. Midler wore a strapless dress with crepe-like wrinkles. Using chemicals and paint, he had to erase the sides of her body, redraw the sides and the wrinkly dress further in, then extend the orange background to fill in the missing space. He slimmed her fat face too, took frizz out of her ghastly hair, and removed wrinkles and blemishes from her skin. And he had to do this so carefully that the changes were invisible to the human eye, which can pick up minute discrepancies in a photograph. If, for example, the retoucher drew the edge between the dress and the background too sharply, instead of blurring the edge in the manner of real photographs, the average music fan would see the sharpness as quickly as some of us see the face of a burn victim passing on the street. A good retoucher’s work is invisible.

Choose one of the terms below, or choose one of your own, and write a definition paragraph.

A psychiatric disorder, such as autism or ADD.
A job title, such as barista or sauté chef
A philosophy, such as dialectics or epistemology or atheism.
A foreign policy such as unilateralism or détente.
A controversial subject, such as arranged marriage or corporal punishment
A genre or sub-genre of music, such as jazz or bebop.
A lifestyle choice, such childlessness or single motherhood.
An area of expertise or deep knowledge, such as online gaming or EXCEL.



Classification is sorting. When you put people or objects or ideas into categories, you are classifying. A classification paragraph explains how things fit into categories. Baseball players, for example, can be classified by position; infielders, outfielders, pitchers, catchers. Or they can be classified by their level of professionalism; single A, double A, triple A, major-league. Or they can be put into sub-categories; pitchers can be starters or middle-relievers or closers. Whichever method of classification you choose, your categories must make sense. A baseball player, for example, can be either a minor or major-leaguer, but a major-leaguer cannot be either an amateur or professional athlete; all major-leaguers are professional athletes.

The following classification paragraph puts the writer’s ex-girlfriends into categories:

When I was single, girls I dated fell into three categories: the self-absorbed misfit, the drug-addicted artist, and the can’t-make-up-her-mind-lesbian. The first category was epitomized by Cathy, a woman so fascinated by the minutia of her daily life, so convinced of her uniqueness, so thrilled by the mundane details of her existence, that for six months I was hypnotized. “I’m the only person I know who writes stuff on their hands so I won’t forget,” she gushed, showing me a phone number she had inked on her palm. The sheer force of her narcissism convinced me that writing phone numbers on one’s hand was an extraordinary act of non-conformity. Diane, a punky art student from Montreal, falls neatly into the second category. When I first visited her apartment, I noticed an enormous canvas on which she had begun painting barnyard chickens. On the floor beneath the canvas, coffee cans held an impressive array of wet brushes and paints. During my second visit, two months later, the painting had not changed and the coffee cans held the same brushes and paints. But because I loved her, I understood that true artists don’t always make art; sometimes, to stay creative, they snort a lot of coke. For the third category, I pick Ruth. When she wasn’t complaining about how gross men looked naked, she was telling me about the crush she had on her best friend, Patricia, or the crush she had on her oldest friend Susan, or how much fun she had dancing at a gay bar. When I suggested she might be a lesbian, she angrily accused me of having “typical male fantasies.” When she finally did start sleeping with girls, she would occasionally return to my arms, giggling, “Some things about guys I miss.”

Below is a list of classification paragraph topics. You can choose one or choose your own.

jobs                                                    mothers
car ads                                               toupees
fast-food outlets                              street musicians
pick-up lines                                     weddings
high school teachers                        dogs
kissers                                                cities you have lived in
facial hair                                          breakfasts
lover’s spats                                      Choose your own



Dangling Modifiers.
A modifier, whether word or a phrase, is supposed to refer to something else in the sentence. A dangling modifier refers to nothing in the sentence, although, sometimes, the reference is implied.


Being arrested, hand-cuffed, mug-shotted, and thrown in a cell with mother-rapers, the cops also refused to give me my phone call.


After I was arrested, hand-cuffed, mug-shotted, and thrown in a cell with mother-rapers, the cops also refused to give me my phone call.


Over eighteen years of marriage, being refused sex, my self-esteem was damaged by  my beautiful, Chilean wife.


Over eighteen years of marriage, my beautiful Chilean wife, who refused to doink me, damaged my self-esteem.


Being one of the ten richest men in New York, the kitchen in my penthouse apartment has a 36-inch Sub-Zero refrigerator, a 36-inch Wolf gas range and charboiler, an Imperial stainless steel range hood and backsplash, and a built-in coffee and espresso maker.

Misplaced Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is a modifier in the wrong part of the sentence. You can correct this by changing its position.


The unlucky bridegroom was poisoned while eating dinner with a vial of strychnine which mysteriously was mixed with his after-dinner liquor.


While eating dinner, the unlucky bridegroom was poisoned with a vial of strychnine, mysteriously mixed with his after-dinner liquor.


Friends is one of the most racist shows because the main cast does not include a single black, Hispanic, or Asian actor on TV.


Friends is one of the most racist shows on TV because the main cast does not include a single black, Hispanic, or Asian actor.



Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.

–Groucho Marx


Being stuffed with chunks of candied pecans, dinner ended with a giant barfothon.