Essay questions usually contain key words like “discuss” or “why” that are easily misunderstood
NATURE & IMPORTANCE OF ESSAY INSTRUCTION WORDS
Most essays written by students are responses to an essay question set by a tutor. Essay questions usually contain one (sometimes more than one) instruction word specifying exactly what has to be done with the subject matter of the essay. Words of this kind are mostly verbs in the “imperative” form (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing), instructing the writer to do such things as describe, discuss or account for something named by the rest of the question.
Essay instruction words are quite numerous and varied. As a result, they present a vocabulary-learning challenge to students whose mother tongue is not English. In addition, these words sometimes differ from each other in very subtle ways, with the result that nearly all students suffer some uncertainties about them.
This post presents a moderately complete list of essay instruction verbs, and attempts to clarify some of the major subtleties. It also considers alternatives to verbs, such as ordinary question words like why. Other posts within this blog that are particularly relevant to essay-writing are 24. Good and Bad Repetition, 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing, 59. Paragraph Length, 80. How to Paraphrase and 108. Formal & Informal Words.
TWO TYPES OF ESSAY INSTRUCTION VERB
Essay instruction verbs fall into two main groups, illustrated respectively by describe and discuss in the following:
(a) Describe the process by which second language learners acquire grammatical competence.
(b) Discuss the importance of wind turbines within a national energy policy.
Describe in (a) here calls only for factual information, while discuss in (b), though also requiring facts such as the advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines, requires in addition some thought about these in order to reach a personal opinion about wind turbine use. In other words, it requires argumentation (see 167. Ways of Arguing 1). This difference leads questions like (a) to be called “descriptive”, those like (b) “analytic”.
Analytic essays are very commonly required in higher education. Understanding the concept of analysis is thus very important. The need in an essay for an opinion to be given is a major indication that analysis is required (for advice on the nature of opinions, see 107. The Language of Opinions). However, not all analysis leads to opinions; analysing statistics, for example, can result in the discovery of previously-hidden facts (see 115. Surveying Numerical Data). Nevertheless, analysis leading to opinion is the most usual kind in essays.
If you are not sure whether an essay requires an opinion to be given, it can help to consider whether or not different answers are possible. Question (a) above does not allow different possible answers – only a single process is implied to exist – whereas (b) allows a range from “not important at all” to “essential”. The “correct” answer could be anywhere within this range – and it can vary from student to student. Everything depends on the analysis. With this in mind, the reader might like to try identifying the more analytic questions among the following:
(c) Outline the main options available for reducing traffic congestion in and between towns.
(d) Evaluate the poverty-reduction policies of the World Bank over the past 25 years.
(e) Assess the usefulness of dictionaries in foreign language acquisition.
(f) Explain the importance of the product life cycle.
(g) Compare and contrast the pollution problems of advanced and less advanced economies.
The analytic questions here are (d), (e) and (g). In (d) the different possible answers range from “not successful” to “wholly successful” (with such intermediates as “quite successful”); in (e) they are “not useful” to “essential”; while in (g) they are “identical” to “completely different”. Questions like (g) are particularly notable: it is not enough to list individual similarities and differences – these must also be used in order to judge overall similarity/difference. Question (f) is not analytic because no judgement of importance is required; the wording already implies that the importance is great, and the essay simply has to say how.
LIST & SUBTLETIES OF ESSAY INSTRUCTION VERBS
Here is a moderately complete list of essay instruction words. Most, if not all, can be thought of as a subclass of so-called “citation” verbs (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs). Those marked * could be either descriptive or analytic: they sometimes require merely repeating what a book or lecturer has said, sometimes working out the answer independently.
*account for, define, demonstrate, describe, elaborate, explain, express, give an account of, *identify, illustrate, indicate, list, name, outline, portray, *review, show, specify, summarise, survey, trace.
*account for, analyse, appraise, assess, comment on, compare, contrast, critique, discuss, examine, evaluate, *identify, interpret, judge, justify, *review.
Notable points about these words are follows. Compare has a double meaning: either “identify similarities and differences” or simply “identify “similarities”. This may seem strange, but is not unique in English. Consider these:
In each case, the top term can mean both of the lower ones together or just one of them. This ambiguity of compare is probably the reason why essay questions requiring differences to be considered as well as similarities prefer to use the unambiguous compare and contrast.
Critique means “evaluate through identifying positives and negatives”. It is often preferred to criticise because that word has similar ambiguity to that of compare (it could mean “give the negative points” as well as “give the positives and negatives”).
Some of the words in the above lists are very close in meaning to some of the others. This seems true of outline, review and summarise; of list and survey; and of appraise, assess and evaluate. It is not true, however, of account for, which means “explain”, and give an account of, which means “describe”.
Finally, discuss is probably the most common of all the words. It usually calls for the kind of argument where opposing lists of points are presented and compared in order to facilitate an overall judgement (see 168. Ways of Arguing 2). It is quite often placed at the end of a question, like this:
(h) Africa’s economic future lies in manufacturing, not agriculture. Discuss.
This essay would require manufacturing and agriculture to be separately analysed for the likely benefits and problems that expanding each would bring to Africa, and then would have to use these in judging the truth of the statement in the question. Possible answers would range from “the statement is true” to “the statement is false”, with such intermediates as “mainly true” and “partly true”.
ALTERNATIVES TO INSTRUCTION VERBS
Sometimes an essay instruction is given with a noun derived from an instruction verb – description, for example, instead of describe, or definition instead of define. This seems likely to happen when a particular kind of extra information needs to be given about the instructed activity, as in give the standard definition of… . The meaning of standard is not easy to include with a verb (there is no adverb *standardly), but readily accompanies a noun. For more about this reason for avoiding a verb, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?.
Using nouns instead of verbs in this way, however, does not result in fewer verbs: there will still be a “dummy” verb – give in the example above – alongside the noun to keep the sentence grammatical. This verb will usually be GIVE, but some nouns require an alternative, e.g. carry out an analysis and reach a conclusion. For more, see 173. “Do Research” or “Make Research”?.
Another alternative to an instruction verb is a question word. For example, (a) above could begin with how instead of describe the process …, (b) could have how important instead of discuss the importance, and (c) could use what are instead of outline. Question words like this can even be combined with instruction verbs to create indirect questions (with no final question mark – see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing), e.g. explain how…, discuss why… and identify when… . Sometimes the question word is paraphrased with a noun, e.g. discuss the reason… (see 185. Noun Synonyms of Question Words).
The combination of how + adjective needs special care. Consider this:
(i) How useful is a knowledge of phonetics for learning foreign languages?
This does not assume that a knowledge of phonetics has any usefulness at all for learning languages. Possible answers range from “not useful” to “essential”, and an essay arguing the complete uselessness of phonetics knowledge for this purpose would be successful if based on competent analysis.
In the same way, how similar means that similarity may or may not exist and how effective is non-committal about effectiveness. There is no difference here from everyday English questions like How old are you? askable of a child and How far is … ? askable about somewhere near. Essay questions containing this use of How …? can normally be paraphrased with To what extent … ?.
Care is also needed to distinguish how with an adjective straight after it from how with a delayed adjective. Compare these:
(j) How important are wind turbines within a national energy policy?
(k) How are wind turbines important within a national energy policy?
Although (j) is like (i) in being open about importance, (k) is certainly not: it says wind turbines are definitely important and it wants to know how. The corresponding instruction word is explain (the importance of) – as in (f) above – rather than discuss or evaluate.
Further practice with instruction verbs can be downloaded from the Learning Materials page of this blog (sheet 14).