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An elementary empirical model for the distribution of electronic states of an amorphous semiconductor is presented. Using this model, we determine the functional form of the optical absorption spectrum, focusing our analysis on the joint density of states function, which dominates the absorption spectrum over the range of photon energies we consider. Applying our optical absorption results, we then determine how the empirical measures commonly used to characterize the absorption edge of an amorphous semiconductor, such as the Tauc gap and the absorption tail breadth, are related to the parameters that characterize the underlying distribution of electronic states. We, thus, provide the experimentalist with a quantitative means of interpreting the physical significance of their optical absorption data. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.