Process Words In Essay Questions

Process words are terms like 'analyse', 'compare', or 'contrast'.

These words tell you what is required of you when answering essay questions and how you should use the information you have found for your essay.

Process words are not helpful when searching for information online - you will need to use keywords for this.

Common process words

Account for
Explain, clarify, give the reasons for. This is quite different from "give an account of..." which is more like "describe in detail".

Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.

Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view.

Consider the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.

Comment on
This term asks for a combination of the criteria found in "analyse" and "assess". Although it sounds as if it would be similar to "describe "or "summarise" it is asking you to be critical and evaluative in your approach.

Identify and discuss the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common you will probably need to point out their differences as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to "compare" and "contrast".

Point out and discuss the differences between two things. You will probably need to identify their similarities as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to "compare" and "contrast".

Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case.

Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things.

Spell out the default aspects of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things happened.

Probably the most common word to appear in essay titles and usually requiring analysis and evaluation of evidence as well as weighing up arguments and drawing conclusions.

Similar to "assess" in that you need to consider the value and importance of something and weigh up its different aspects, citing evidence and argument in support of your case.

Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to "describe" and to "analyse".

To what extent
Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of "assess" and "criticise", probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.

Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.

Similar to "explain" but probably requesting you give specific examples or statistics to support your case.

Clarify something or explain it, perhaps indicating how the thing relates to something else, or explaining a particular way of looking at it.

Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to argue a case.

Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.

Survey a topic with the emphasis on "assess" rather than "describe".

Give the main points briefly, omitting details and illustrations.

Describe in narrative form the progress, development or sequence of events from some particular point.

These guidance notes were produced by the Student Study Support Unit at Canterbury Christchurch College.

The ‘key words’ in an essay question allow you to identify what you are supposed to write about. Use the strategies below to break questions down in to manageable chunks.

Introductory question or statement

Example 1

Full question:“What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Extract the basic question:
“Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Remaining words introduce the topic and give focus. They are not key to the question.

Example 2 

Full question: “Popular magazines for men and women are selfish, superficial and obsessed with sex. Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
Extract the basic question:
“Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
The process word ‘discuss’ refers back to the topic in the initial statement.
The initial statement is vital to understanding the question in this case.
Possible actions: Take out the introductory/initial question or statement to see what effect it has on your question.
If the question feels like it has missing information, look for what is missing in the initial statement.

Example 3 - Identify the meaning words

Question:"What is meant by shock advertising?Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers."
Analysis: The initial question is struck out because it is not vital to understanding the essay question.
Green indicates the process word (in this case 'Evaluate'). This tells you how to approach the paper.
The words in bluecarry all the meaning. Work out their significance. Use your knowledge of the subject to help you do that.


'Arguments’ carries the same meaning as ‘for and against’ so it doesn’t add anything further to the question.

The concept of ‘use’ is implied by the topic ‘shock advertising’. Check whether you need to distinguish ‘use’ from ‘concept’, as this could be a key word as well.

Understanding process words

The process word tells you what structure your essay will take: linear, two sided, argumentative?

Remember to:

  • Pick out the verb in the question – the word that tells you what to do in the paper
  • Understand what that word means (download our list of process words below)
  • Structure your essay around that word

Go to chapter on 'Structuring your essay' to help you structure your essay based on the process word.

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