Over 30 ‘directives’ or ‘tail words’ and how to tackle them in Mains

UPSC paper setters take a lot of time to frame questions and this is one of the main reasons we don’t find any of the other exams coming remotely closer to UPSC. In such a scenario, not having a deep understanding ‘question directives‘ or ‘tail words‘ can adversely impact your attempt.

Presenting an exhaustive list to help clear all doubts – what do the ‘question directives’ mean from a pure english language perspective? How they can be incorporated in your Mains Answer Writing?

Towards the end, we discuss their practical applicability.

There are 2 kinds of directives – Descriptive directives and Critical directives 

Descriptive directives want you to primarily answer the 4Ws – what, where, who, when. You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any analysis or discussion. They want you to provide with information.

Critical directives, on the other hand, want you to go beyond providing information. They want you to analyse and evaluate the issue at hand. A much higher level of skill is clearly needed for attempting critical directives than for descriptive directives. 

Let’s dive in 

Descriptive directives

1. Define

Here, you must outline the precise meaning of the term being referred to. If you don’t have a crisp clear and packed definition, then it will be hard for you to score in this question.

If the definition is contested then make sure you mention that. Mentioning examples to make it clear to the examiner always helps. 

For example, the definition on terrorism, there are many different perspectives. Some say, there is also state sponsored terrorism. Others contest it. Clearly present this in the definition. You need not be an expert. Put it down in your own words.

2. Describe

When describing something, you must provide thorough insight into the main characteristics of the topic in a very objective manner. 

Eg. when asked to describe a policy. You simply have to list the main issues it tries to address and the salient features. (ideally doesn’t want you to )

3. Elaborate

Here, you are required to provide a lot of detail and information on a topic or argument. 

Eg. ‘Although individuals within a representative democracy possess rights, allowing them to lobby parliamentarians and governments concerning pertinent issues, a collective approach can often exert more powerful pressure on decision makers, as well as consolidating a range of similar ideas and opinions into a cohesive format’. Elaborate. (2013)

You are expected to discuss, in detail, with examples and arguments on the idea of pressure groups, lobbying in particular.

4. Explain

‘Explain’ questions expect you to basically clarify a topic. When answering such questions, it helps to imagine you are writing for someone who knows absolutely nothing of the subject. And remember two things. To provide as much detail as possible, and to give definitions for any jargon or key terms when used.

Keep in mind any ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions as this will help you to structure a clear and logically coherent response. Coherence is extremely important in providing explanatory answers.

5. Explore

Needless to say, your answer must be exploratory and thus it is imperative that you adopt a questioning approach when answering such questions. Because of the exploratory nature of such essays, objectivity is key. That is, you should give an overview of all viewpoints before providing any of your own arguments.

A somewhat detached, dispassionate tone can be particularly effective, in contrast to the more assertive, argumentative tone you might adopt for other types of essay question. Just remember that the key objective here is to give a nuanced account of a research topic or argument by examining its composite parts.

>>Simplification based Descriptive directives

6. Clarify/elucidate

This means to provide insight into a subject, and quite literally, provide clarification. For example, this could be done by making an argument or topic more clear by explaining it in simpler terms.

In several of the questions, where the examiners use this directive, they present us with a cause-effect linkage asking us to ‘elucidate’. In such cases, we have to basically bring out the linkage more clearly citing evidence and examples.

Eg. The Self Help Group (SHG) Bank Linkage Program (SBLP), which is India’s own innovation, has proved to be one of the most effective poverty alleviation and women empowerment programme. Elucidate

‘Globalisation is generally said to promote cultural homogenisation but due to this cultural specificities appear to be strengthened in the Indian society.’ Elucidate. (2018)

7. State/Throw light on

To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.

Eg. Throw light on the significance of the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi in the present times. (2018 – 10M)


Start with a line like Gandhi is regarded as the greatest Indian since Gautama Buddha and the greatest man since Jesus Christ.

Elaborate on the following writing 1-2 lines and you’ll score an 8/10. No need to explain too much and go into the depth too much


2.Ahimsa – believer in peace and harmony,


4.Swaraj – Multidimensional concept spanning political, cultural, economic and technological spheres.

5.Dharma – Multidimensional concept meaning many things depending upon the situation – obedience to law, morality, being virtuous, etc.

6.Trusteeship Model – Though a failed model but inspired Corporate Social Responsibility. The best companies in the world invest heavily in social projects.

7.Ram Rajya/ Decentralized polity – Democracy is about giving power to the masses. Debates around strengthening the Panchayati Raj system all based on this ideal.

8.Sarvodaya and Antyodaya

9.Campaign against untouchability

10.Campaign for cleanliness – Inspired swatch bharat.

11.Ethical journalism – Gandhi was a journalist at heart. He published 4 newspapers and used it as a medium to generate awareness.

12.Opposition to western materialism, appreciation for sciences and bringing back spiritualism from our past.

8. Identify

Questions that require you to ‘identify’ something in relation to a topic or argument require you to point out and describe the main ideas in a short and coherent way.

Eg. What is the significance of Industrial Corridors in India? Identifying industrial corridors, explain their main characteristics. (2018-15M)

Here, you are expected to identify the particular issue that is asked for in the question ie., Industrial corridor locations. Sticking to the keyword is of utmost significance. 

>>Presentation based Descriptive directives

9. Demonstrate/substantiate

The key to tackling ‘demonstrate’ questions is to use several examples, evidence, and logical arguments. Essentially, you are required to show how a particular research topic or argument is valid by using evidence and arguments to support your claim.

You have to build a strong case. 

Similarly substantiate require you to substantiate already proven point and not debating between the various points. 

Eg. ‘Women’s movement in India has not addressed the issues of women of lower social strata.’ Substantiate your view. (2018-15M)

10. Enumerate

Specifically asking you to provide details in a point-wise format. 

Eg. Enumerate the provisions of RTI Bill. You are expected to list the provisions. But you should also deal with the analysis aspect of it as to how each provision addresses a particular dimension of transparency/ accountability.

11 Estimate

Measurement of positive & negative of an idea. It doesn’t show exact situation. (Note: No conclusion is written in this type of question).

12. Illustrate

Such an answer will generally involve the use of many examples, such as tables, figures, graphs, or concrete research statistics and evidence. The aim is to use these examples to demonstrate knowledge of the subject of the question and to further explain or clarify your answer.

Eg. What is meant by conflict of interest? Illustrate with examples, the difference between the actual and potential conflicts of interest (2018)

‘Communalism arises either due to power struggle or relative deprivation.’ Argue by giving suitable illustrations. (2018 – 15marks)

In both the questions, you have to quote examples to explain your points. Examples of how power struggle has aided communalism and how relative deprivation has aided communalism.

13. Outline

outline answer requires you present an organised description of a topic or argument. It is imperative that you provide the main points only (and any important supplementary information) as opposed to focusing on the minor details. Remember to present your answer in a systematic and coherent way.

14. Summarise

When you are asked to summarise or present a summary of a topic, you should give a condensed form of its main points or facts. You must omit all minor details and focus mainly on the key facts. As a result, summaries are typically brief and straight to the point. The key is to get all the main facts across to the reader in as punchy and succinct a manner as possible.

>>Comparative analysis based

These questions are best represented in the form of a table. 

15. Compare

When asked to ‘compare’, you must identify any similarities between two or more subjects of discussion. You can go beyond making a basic comparison by trying to understand the roots of the similarities you identify, as well as their significance.

Furthermore, you may also want to emphasise any differences, although the focus of your essay should be on establishing similarities.

Eg. A question on comparing various land revenue systems in British India is expected to tackle the similar objectives of the mechanisms while also presenting the fine differences between them.

16. Contrast

A ‘contrast’ question expects you to identify differences, not similarities, between subjects. What are the main dissimilarities between two or more subjects? What sets them apart? These are the general questions that you must keep in mind when addressing ‘contrast’ questions.

17. Differentiate

Bring out the differences. 

Eg. How the Indian concept of secularism is different from the western model of secularism? Discuss. (2018)

This is a tricky question in the sense that it wants a comparative analysis but at the same time asks you to deep dive into it by asking you to ‘discuss’. Go through the approach. Parts of it can be captured in a tabular format. 


Secularism broadly refers to the separation of religion from state and its confinement to the private sphere. It’s a western construct whose roots can be traced back to the treaty of Westphalia which called for state sovereignty and its separation of religion. However, the relationship between religion and states remain complex.

There are 2 prominent models of secularism regarded as western models

1.France –> wall of separation model – which calls for a water-tight separation between the religion and state exists. The state actively tries to confine people’s religion to their private spheres and bans public appearances. Eg. banning burkinis, hijab, etc.

2.USA -> no-preference model – which calls for equal treatment of all religions by the state and no preferential treatment. In USA, you have every right to wear your religion in public.

The version of Indian Secularism has been a matter of intense debate. Secularism is a part of the Preamble and the Constitution calls for no discrimination on the basis of religion. However, it also allows the state to intervene in matters of religion via Art. 25-30. The DPSP for establishing UCC also goes against the principles of Secularism.

Some matters where the state has interfered

1.The Hindu Marriage Act.
2.The Triple Talaq Ban
3.Jallikatu, Temple Entry, etc.
Hence one can see it is neither a wall of separation model nor a no-preference model.

The Indian Secularism can be best described as that of ‘Principled Distance’. The doctrine of Principled Distance allows states to interfere in matters of religion to stop discrimination and ensure that all religion are treated equally.


Critical directives 

The following directives require you to provide with a critical analysis. The degree of how critical your answers must be is decided by the specific directives. 

1. Analyse

Questions that ask you to ‘analyse’ a particular topic expect a thorough deconstruction of the subject. In other words, this word requires you to break the topic down into its fundamental parts.

Once you have done this, it’s important that you critically (more on this later) examine each part. You need to use important debates and evidence to look in depth at the arguments for and against, as well as how the parts interconnect. What does the evidence suggest? 

Eg. When you are asked to analyse the relevance of the latest e-commerce policy, you clearly explain the topic in hand, use substantial facts and arguments to argue for and against the topic and give a conclusion.

2. Evaluate

You are required to demonstrate the extent to which you agree with a particular argument or hypothesis.

It is essential to provide information on both sides of the debate. Then you must state your position basing your arguments on the evidence that informed you in arriving at your position.

3. Justify/Advocate

With ‘justify’ question words, you need to explain the basis of your argument by presenting the evidence that informed your outlook in a very convincing way. 

You need to explain why other possible arguments are unsatisfactory as well as why your own particular argument is preferable.

Eg. If a question says that Art 370 completes the integration of Kashmir into India, you are expected to justify any stand you take. You need not toe the line of the question. Just be firm with your argument, strengthen it with evidence and argue for it. Also, prove against why the other side is not true.

4. Review/Examine

An answer to a ‘review’ question word should demonstrate critical examination of a subject or argument. This is done by recapping or summarising the major themes or points in question, and critically discussing them while giving your opinion.

Put another way, ‘review’ questions entail offering your opinion on the validity of the essay question. 

Review answers must demonstrate a high level of analytical skill. The aim is not simply to regurgitate the works of other scholars, but rather to critically analyse these works.

5. Assess

In the case of ‘assess’, you are expected to consider or make an informed judgement about the value, strengths or weakness of an argument, claim or topic. Questions place particular emphasis on weighing all views concerning the essay subject, as opposed to your opinion only. Essentially, you need to convince the reader about the strength of your argument, using research to back up your assessment of the topic is essential. Highlight any limitations to your argument and remember to mention any counter arguments to your position.

6. Discuss

‘Discuss’ question words typically require an in-depth answer that takes into account all aspects of the debate concerning the topic. You must demonstrate reasoning skills with this type of question, by using evidence to make a case for or against a research topic/argument.

Give a detailed examination of the topic by including knowledge of the various perspectives put forward by other scholars in relation to it. What are your thoughts on the subject based on the general debates in the literature? Remember to clearly state your position based on all the evidence you present.

7. Examine

‘Examine’ questions are less exploratory and discursive than some other types of question. They focus instead on asking you to critically examine particular pieces of evidence or facts to inform your analysis.

8. To what extent

In essence, this asks how far you agree with a proposition put forward in the question. This requires a very in-depth assessment of the topic, and especially of the evidence used to present your argument.

Such questions require that you display the extent of your knowledge on a given subject and that you also adopt an analytical style in stating your position. This means that you must consider both sides of the argument, by presenting contrasting pieces of evidence. But ultimately, you must show why a particular set of evidence, or piece of information, is more valid for supporting your answer.

9. Comment

It’s like giving a commentary. Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.

Eg. “Sufis and Medieval mystic saints failed to modify either the religious ideas and practices or the outward structure of Hindu/Muslim societies to any appreciable extent. Comment.” (2014)



Critically evaluate, Critically analyze, Critically Examine

Critical is a strong word and will warrant an assertive response that details the extent to which you agree or disagree with the argument at hand.

The key to tackling these question words is providing ample evidence to support your claims. Ensure that your analysis is balanced by shedding light on, and presenting a critique of, and alternative perspectives. It is also important that you present extensive evidence taken from a varying range of sources.

State your conclusion clearly and state the reasons for this conclusion, drawing on factors and evidence that informed your perspective. Also try to justify your position in order to present a convincing argument to the reader.

Eg. Critically examine the Supreme Court’s judgement on ‘National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, 2014’ with reference to appointment of judges of higher judiciary in India. (2017)

This question expects you to :

  1. first present the judgement
  2. put forward your opinion on the judgement and substantiate it
  3. Mention the opposite argument and highlight the drawbacks of the argument
  4. Conclude by giving your firm opinion on the topic 


The knowledge of these directives is important. But they are not the primary factor to consider while deciding how to pen down your answer. 

If you have a 250 word question asking to ‘illustrate.’ You cant simply provide 2-3 examples and say your job is done. 

You have to deep dive and analyze by providing more examples. It is implied that some analysis is expected as the question follows a lengthy format. 

So, it is important that you understand what is expected from you rather than blindly following the directive. 

These directives can be effective when you have more knowledge about the topic and have enough material to write. In such a scenario, the directives can help you filter the content thats most aligned. 

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By Root

Caretaker @civilsdaily

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