What's in a Word? Definition in Argumentation

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Over  numerous editions of Elements of Argument, we have debated where to place the Definition chapter. Sometimes defining a term is a matter of finetuning to be sure every detail of the content is clear, which might come in at the revising or editing stage. At other times, definition is at the heart of the argument and must be stipulated from the beginning. Sometimes, the way a key term is defined can be used for deceptive purposes. Even if deception is not intended, it can hamper communication because the term is defined differently by the writer/ speaker and audience.. Changing the definition of a term can also cause confusion.

 For example, there is debate now over how the term “fully vaccinated” is defined. There was a time not all that long ago that to be fully vaccinated meant to have two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Although each company had different standards for what “fully vaccinated” meant, the definition was widely explained and widely accepted. Now booster shots have complicated the picture. Does fully vaccinated mean that a person has had a booster shot in addition to the initial one or two shots? Some countries are already rethinking what “fully vaccinated” means in making the decision whether or not to allow someone into the country.

As of January 16, 2022, the CDC made a useful distinction between up-to-date and fully vaccinated: “Up to date means a person has received all recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including any booster dose(s) when eligible. Fully vaccinated means a person has received their primary series of COVID-19 vaccines.” According to a recent Cnet.com article entitled “Why doesn't 'fully vaccinated' for COVID-19 mean booster shots?”, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, was asked by CNN at a White House press briefing, “‘Can you explain why the CDC is not changing the definition of “fully vaccinated,” given that could potentially encourage more people to get a third shot?”’ 

The US has currently boosted 85.5 million people, or about 40% of people considered fully vaccinated. Walensky responded: “In public health, for all vaccines, we've talked about being up to date for your vaccines. Every year, you need a flu shot; you're not up to date with your flu shot until you've gotten your flu shot for that year. ... What we really are working to do is pivot the language to make sure that everybody is as up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines as they personally could be.’ Despite the CDC's reticence to change the definition, many organizations and governments who use the term ‘fully vaccinated’ are adding booster requirements to their COVID-19 rules.”

The CDC is wise not to change the definition because of the confusion the change would cause but also because of the criticism it would draw. Those who are vaccine hesitant and do not agree with vaccine mandates would question scientists for changing the rules. Each new variant requires new thinking, and the best advice scientists can offer is based on what they learn with each new day of studying the virus. They must be clear in stipulating to the public what they mean by the terms that they use and cautious about changing the meaning of key terms.

Photo: “Definition of Blog” by Doug B is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.