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 aims to present a moderately complete list of essay instruction words, and to clarify some of the major subtleties. In addition, there is an analysis of the relation between instruction words and 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.
THE TWO MAIN KINDS OF ESSAY INSTRUCTION WORD
Essay instruction words can be divided into two main types: those like describe and those like discuss. To understand the difference between them, compare the following questions:
(a) Describe the process by which second language learners acquire grammatical competence.
(b) Discuss the importance of wind turbines within a national energy policy.
It will be seen that question (a) requires only factual information, while (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. As a result of this, questions like (a) can be called “descriptive”, those like (b) “analytic”.
The concept of analysis is an important one to appreciate in order to score well at essay writing. Although it can produce new facts as well as opinions – for example in statistical interpretation – the kind leading to opinion is an especially common requirement of essays. One technique that I have found useful for deciding whether an essay requires analysis is considering whether or not different possible answers exist. 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 WORDS
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 the same ambiguity as compare.
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 opposing arguments and overall evaluation, and is very flexible as a result. It is also usable 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”.
QUESTION WORDS CORRESPONDING TO INSTRUCTION WORDS
Very often an essay instruction word can be paraphrased with 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. The combination of how + adjective needs special care. Consider this:
(i) How important is a knowledge of phonetics for teaching and learning foreign languages?
This does not assume that a knowledge of phonetics has any importance at all for learning languages. Possible answers range from “not important” to “essential”. An essay arguing the complete uselessness of phonetics 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 words can be downloaded from the Learning Materials page of this blog (sheet 14).