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MHS Library | Academic writing

Identifying the key words

Identifying the keywords in a question helps you understand what the assignment is about and what you have to do before you go into the details of the question or topic. 

Classify words

Task words tell you what to do to complete your assignment or research task.  You should become familiar with the most common task words and what they require you to do. 

Here are some common task words and their definitions:

  • Summarise - to describe something concisely
  • Discuss - to articulate your opinion, supported by authoritative evidence 
  • Define - to describe, explain, or make definite and clear
  • Compare - to assess the similarities and differences between two or more things
  • Contrast - to compare or appraise in respect to differences
  • Evaluate - to present a judgement of an issue by stressing both strengths and advantages, and weaknesses and limitations. 
  • Describe - to recall something in detail without explaining it. 





Content words are the main ideas and key concepts in the question. Content words are nouns, verbs, adjectives and many adverbs. They carry the meaning of the sentence, and are therefore the ones you use as your search terms.


Limiting words help you focus your discussion on the topic, and prevent your search from being too general and overwhelming. 

This might include:

  • Time, eg. last week; in the nineteenth century
  • Place, eg. Melbourne; Soviet Russia
  • People and groups, eg. South Australians; single parents

You should limit your search by including these words.


Context words or sentences provide the setting or background for your research question. They help you keep your focus rather than losing your way researching irrelevant information. Context words provide the information we need to fully understand, evaluate or interpret the ideas or circumstances.