Writing and Learning Initiatives

Optimizing academic support and achievement

Directive Words

Good answers to essay questions depend in part upon a clear understanding of the meanings of the important directive words. These are words such as explain, compare, contrast, justify, and analyze which indicate the way in which the material is to be presented.

Background knowledge of the subject matter is essential. But mere evidence of this knowledge is not enough. If you are asked to compare the British and American secondary school systems, you will get little or no credit if you merely describe them. If you are asked to critically analyze the present electoral system, you are not answering the question if you merely explain how it operates.

The words that follow are frequently used in essay examinations. You might take some time to ensure you understand what is expected of you as a writer when you see the following words in essay prompts.

In regards to the WPE, be reminded that a WPE essay is satisfactory only if it answers directly the question asked.

Definitions of Directive Words

SUMMARIZE
Sum up; give the main points briefly. Summarize the ways in which humans preserve food.
EVALUATE
Give the good points and the bad ones; appraise; give an opinion regarding the value of; talk over the advantages and limitations. Evaluate the contributions of teaching machines.
CONTRAST
Bring out the points of difference. Contrast the Animal Science Departments at UC Davis and Cal Poly.
EXPLAIN
Make clear; interpret; make plain; tell "how" to do; tell the meaning of. Explain how humans can, at times, trigger a full-scale rainstorm.
DEFINE
Give the meaning of a word or concept; place it in the class to which it belongs and set it off from other items in the same class. Define the term "archetype."
COMPARE
Bring out points of similarity and points of difference. Compare the legislative branches of the state government and the national government.
DISCUSS
Talk about; consider from various points of view; present the different sides of. Discuss the use of pesticides in controlling mosquitoes.
CRITICIZE
State your opinion as to the correctness or merits of an item or issue; criticism may approve or disapprove. Criticize the increasing cut backs at Cal Poly.
JUSTIFY
Show good reasons for; give your evidence; present facts to support your position. Justify the American entry into World War II.
TRACE
Follow the course of; follow the trail of; give a description of progress. Trace the development of television in school instruction.
INTERPRET
Make plain; give the meaning of; give your thinking about; translate. Interpret the poetic line, "The sound of a cobweb snapping is the noise of my life."
PROVE
Establish the truth of something by giving factual evidence or logical reasons. Prove that in a full-employment economy, a society can get more of one product only by giving up another product.
ILLUSTRATE
Use a word picture, a diagram, a chart, or a concrete example to clarify a point. Illustrate the use of catapults in the amphibious warfare of Alexander.
ANALYZE
Study or determine the nature and relationship of the parts. Resolve the complex into the simple by taking apart the whole. Analyze the major source of conflict between Syria and Israel.
CLARIFY
Make clear. Make simple, concrete, and understandable. Clarify the position of Republicans on the new tax issue.

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