Action (also referred to as command or instruction) words form the basis of the requirements for assignments, examinations, general tests or when communicating with others. What do they mean though?
Well, this can depend not just upon who has set a test or who you are communicating with but also the level and depth of understanding you are thinking of communicating the required message to. Describing something to a school child will be different to that of an experienced employee operating at a highly technical level; so context is a key part of effective communication in answering an action word.
Typical examples include: Assess …; Define …; Describe …; Discuss …; Evaluate …; Explain …; Explore …; Identify …; List …; and Outline ….
Here’s my personal take on each of these, although clearly you will need to compare and contrast these with those of the specific organisation you are dealing with as their interpretation may be slightly different:
- To assess something, you would be aiming to consider a range of data and information, which may be measurements or judgement statements, reflect on the importance of features, and to provide a reasoned conclusion of your findings.
- To define something, you would beaiming to provide a formal meaning, without ambiguity, to the term being defined. It would typically be a technical description of a term.
- To describe something, you would most likely be providing information on a feature, function or process. This would typically be a short to medium length communication, of a paragraph or two, or more, depending upon the actual descriptive request being made. For example, you might include: size, shape, colour, texture, composition, how it relates to or interacts with something else, its movement, its purpose. Including an example, or examples, of what is being described, if appropriate, would also be beneficial. Elements of ‘why’ or ‘how’ may also be included for additional detail, although this would be expanded on within an ‘Explain’ type command word.
- To discuss something, you would need to set out a logical and well-reasoned approach to the subject being discussed. This would be an in-depth communication. Benefits and limitations of the subject would be provided, including examples of each, and insight, which might be future applications or issues, into the subject would be expected as part of a discussion. To ensure a well-reasoned approach is taken within a discussion there should be a balance, not necessarily an even balance though, of arguments, and a conclusion to the discussion.
- To evaluate something, you would bemaking an informed decision, or judgment, on something which you have analysed. You would be comparing and contrasting positions and including cause and effect of actions of the subject matter so as to arrive at a solution, or range of recommendations.
- To explain something, you would most likely be providing detailed and reasoned information on a feature, function or process, demonstrating your understanding of it. This would be a detailed and, in some cases, an extensive answer. Elements of analysis may also be used, where appropriate and also ensuring that technical terms which are used within the explanation are concisely defined or described. For example, you would consider including commentary and observations on: Why has this arose? What has influenced its effectiveness? How does it influence other processes or outcomes? Has the explanation provided clear and unambiguous meaning to another reader or listener? Worked examples might be used within an explanation to show applied understanding.
- To explore something, you would be carrying out an in-depth investigative and questioning approach to the subject matter. A range of avenues / viewpoints / positions / arguments would be considered, and reasons provided for the different findings. The exploration should lead to an insightful summary and concluding statement which may also include reasons for further investigations, a preferred option, future predictions, or a likely outcome.
- To identify something, you would beaiming to select a key point or points. Providing a brief indication of an example feature or function of the subject matter may also be required, especially for more insightful and objective communication. If it is an identification question, then the name of the subject matter would need to be given, for example, a plant name (common name and/or botanical name).
- To list something in a written situation you would either bullet point, or use numbering, to state key words, features or statements. For a verbal list you would probably use a numbering sequence for clarity of speech. The purpose of a list would typically be to demonstrate a general awareness of the subject matter.
- To outline something, you would provide a brief account of the key areas of the subject, including any relationships between the areas. An outline may include a brief descriptive list.
Chris Gray, 29th December 2018