text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College,
Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain and
may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge,
provided the source is acknowledged—released
SETTING UP THE ARGUMENT: DEFINITION (1)
Under the termdefinition,
this section and the next include two different, but related concepts: first,
establishing clearly what the argument is about (the concern of this section)
and, second, defining any key terms essential to a clear understanding of the
argument which is going to use them (the concern of the next section). The main
point here is that an argument cannot usefully proceed until we all know exactly
what the issue is..
In some arguments, the second
requirement (defining key terms) may not be necessary because the central terms
are all clear enough already (although, as we shall see, that is not something
one should assume too readily). In all arguments, however, especially written
essays and oral presentations, the first requirement is absolutely essential.
Defining the Argument: Some General Points
The first essential
requirement of any argument is that it must establish clearly what the precise
issue is. That is, the opening phase of the argument has to define very clearly
the subject matter of the argument and the particular view of that subject which
the arguer is seeking to persuade the listener or the reader to accept. In
almost all cases, you will need to do this before you start the main body of the
argument (i.e., at the very beginning in a section commonly called theIntroduction).
The introduction to an
argument is so crucial that if it is done poorly then there is virtually no
recovery. No matter how you deal with the rest of your case, if the reader is
unclear about what you are trying to do, then the relevance of that case becomes
unclear. This fault is particularly common in student essays and research
papers, because students typically rush the opening of the essay and fail to
define the argument with sufficient clarity.
There are a number of
different ways to define an argument clearly, and we will be going through some
examples shortly. However the writer sets out the introduction, it must cover
three important components, as follows:
1. The introduction must
alert the reader to thegeneral
considered (e.g., a film, a political issue, a social concern, and so on), in
answer to the question: In general terms, what area of experience is this
argument dealing with?
2. Second, the introduction
must narrow down that general subject so as to define a very specificfocusfor
the argument, in answer to the reader's question: Just what very particular
part of this general subject area is this argument focusing on?
3. Third, the introduction
must establish an argumentative opinion about the focus defined in Step 2
above. This argumentative opinion, which is the central claim you are making
in the argument and which you want the reader to accept, is called thethesisof
As we shall see later, some
arguments will require more introductory material than this, but all arguments,
especially essays and research papers and talks, require these three parts in
Two Simple Examples
In a relatively short essay,
you can usually deal with the three requirements of an Introduction in a single
substantial paragraph (almost invariably the opening paragraph). Here are two
the last ten years (at least) the sale of illegal narcotics in Canada has
become an urgent social concern, and official disapproval of narcotics seems
to get sterner year by year. Every day Canadians see in the media more stories
about the need for increased severity and more strenuous action against drug
dealers. However, as we redouble our efforts to cope with what we perceive as
a major problem, the distribution and sale of illegal narcotics continue to
increase, along with the enormous criminal profits from the enterprise. So the
question inevitably arises: Is this war on drugs worth the price we are
paying? If we think about that question, we should realize that it's about
time we woke up to the fact that we are engaged in a futile, expensive,
unnecessary, and counterproductive battle, one which is creating more problems
than it is solving. This being the case, the only effective and reasonable way
of coping with our so-called narcotics problem in Canada is to legalize the
use of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and their derivatives immediately. (178
by common consent an ambiguous play, with many conflicting interpretative
possibilities. At the heart of many disputes about the play is the character
of the hero himself. Just what sort of person is Prince Hamlet? The play puts
a lot of pressure on us to explore this question, simply because the
motivation for Hamlet's actions and inaction is by no means clear, and yet it
is obviously important. A comprehensive answer to this issue is beyond the
scope of a short essay. However, whatever Hamlet's character adds up to
exactly, one very curious feature about it is his attitude to and
relationships with women. For there is a distinctive pattern in Hamlet's
language and behaviour whenever he is thinking about or dealing with Ophelia
and Gertrude. This pattern is so distinctive that we can reasonably assume it
indicates something important about the prince. In fact, Hamlet's peculiarly
aggressive and often cynical view of these two women and, beyond them, of
women in general, is an important indication of the general unhealthiness of
Notice carefully how these
introductions proceed. The writers open by announcing a general subject (the
sale of illegal narcotics in Canada, Shakespeare'sHamlet).
In the next few sentences the introduction narrows the focus, that is, restricts
the subject matter to something very specific (our attempts to control the sale
of narcotics, and then the futility of those efforts; the question of Hamlet's
character and then the question about his relationship to women). And the
introduction ends by establishing a firm opinion about this focus (we should
abandon the war on drugs by legalizing marijuana, heroin, and cocaine; Hamlet's
treatment of women is an important symptom of emotional ill health). By the end
of this introduction the reader is fully aware of what the writers are trying to
argue (both the particular subject matter and the opinion about that subject
This structure is
particularly useful if you are uncertain how to set up the opening to an essay
or research paper, so you might want to consider the following model for an
introduction. Notice the pattern.
1. In the opening sentence,
announce the general subject (drugs, alcohol, a particular work of literature, a
political event, a social issue, and so on). The general subject matter will
often be contained in the topic for the essay which the instructor has set.
2. In the next two or three
sentences, narrow the focus down to one particular aspect of that general
subject, so the reader understands clearly that you are not dealing with any and
all questions arising from that subject but only with one particular question or
area of concern.
3. Finally at the end of the
introduction in the last one or two sentences, announce the opinion about that
focus, the thesis of the essay, so that the reader understands what you are
By the end of the
introduction the reader must have clear answers to three questions, as follows:
1. What is the general
subject matter of this essay?
2. What particular part of
this general subject is the writer focusing on? Is there any particular area
which the writer is clearly not discussing?
3. What opinion about that
focus is the subject matter of the argument? What does the writer want me to
believe about it?
If you cannot answer these
three questions clearly by the end of the introduction, if there is any
confusion about them, then there is something wrong with the introduction. If
you are concerned about whether or not you have set up a good introduction to
your own essay, get someone to read the introduction and to answer the three
questions above. If she cannot answer them correctly or is confused, then you
need to rewrite the opening definition of the argument.
Notice also what the
introductions above are not doing. They do not lead us into huge generalizations
about society, a range of all sorts of social problems, the biography of
Shakespeare, the nature of all of Shakespeare's works, and so on. They begin by
defining a specific subject and then continue by narrowing down that subject to
a particular focus.
Some Sample Openings
Here are some sample opening
paragraphs to an argumentative essay reviewing a film (I made up the name).
Comment briefly on the quality of each paragraph as the introduction to an
argument. If you think it is inadequate, then indicate why.
The filmTo Ragoon on a
Slave Shiptells the story
of Martin, a teenage runaway on a cargo boat which sails from London to the
Far East. On board the ship are two other stowaways, Gumby and Sian, two
friends, who know nothing about Martin's presence. The ship is called theNarnia.
The captain is called Fred Jones. He hates stowaways and is keen to punish
them whenever he finds them. Rangoon is in the Far East. The story is set in
the early 1900's. Pirates chase the ship at one point. At another time, the
ship joins a group of navy ships sailing off to a war in the Pacific. Martin
is nineteen years old. He is played by Adam Blimph. (124 words).
The filmTo Rangoon on a
Slave Shipcame out in
1995. It is the best film I have ever seen. Everything about it was splendid.
Everybody should see it. (33 words)
To Rangoon on a Slave Ship, a recent adventure film, tells the story of
some young stowaways on a trading vessel going to the Far East in the early
years of this century. Martin, a young London boy, and two other teenagers,
Gumby and Sian, escape from oppressive situations at home by stowing away on
theNarnia, a trading
vessel bound for exotic places. The ship and the young stowaways encounter all
sorts of adventures, but ultimately the story resolves itself happily. The
work contains many predictable elements, a wicked captain, some pirates, brave
teenagers who help each other, a storm at sea, a mutiny, and so on. These
scenes are quite familiar to anyone who has ever seen or read many sea yarns
aimed at a young audience. However, for a number of reasons, particularly the
script, the direction, and the acting of the lead characters, this is not just
another conventional romantic adventure aimed at the younger set. It is in
many ways a mature, amusing, and inventive reworking of a traditional genre,
well worth the price of admission, even for sceptical adults. (186 words)
To Rangoon on A Slave Shipis
a recent film directed by Terry Bright. I really like his films because they
usually combine a good script with some excellent camera work. His first film,Manhattan
By Night, won several prizes at film festivals, and in 1987 another work
won him an Oscar for best screen play. Mr. Bright is a Canadian from Ontario.
He attended film school in Toronto and was in the graduating class that
produced a number of excellent film makers, including Alice Jackson and Sue
McPherson. I really like all their films. It's a shame that more Canadians
don't support Canadian film makers by paying more attention to their films.
That's why so many good directors go south to the United States. Anyway, Mr.
Bright's work is another excellent example of the high quality work that can
be done by Canadians.
The Importance of Defining a Focus
In setting up your own
written or spoken arguments, you need to pay particular attention to defining
the focus very clearly. Remember that you are in charge of the argument; you can
define it in any way you like, indicating what you are looking at and what you
are not looking at. Doing this properly will make constructing the argument very
much easier to do properly. If you fail to define the focus, then the reader may
legitimately ask why you have not looked at some things included in the general
For example, suppose you wish
to write an essay onHamlet.
This is a huge general subject, and you cannot proceed until you have determined
what precisely you wish to examine in this large and difficult work of
literature (and what you wish to leave out). So you will need to reflect upon
what exactly in the play you wish to examine. The process of sorting this out
may take a number of steps.
Suppose, for instance, you
wish to look at the role of women inHamlet.
That narrows down the subject matter considerably, since there are only two
women in the play. But you need not stop there. Do you wish to narrow the focus
any more, for example, onto a consideration of one female character, Ophelia?
And you can proceed from there to narrow the focus even further onto one aspect
of Ophelia's life, her relationship with her father. If you wish the narrowest
possible focus, you can further limit the essay to an examination of Ophelia's
relationship with her father as it is revealed in a single scene or part of a
By going through this
process, you have taken a very large and complicated subject (which you would
not be able to deal with satisfactorily in a short essay or even a large
research paper), and selected from it a very specific part which will be much
easier to manage in the written argument. In fact, as a general rule, the more
narrowly and clearly defined the focus is, the easier the essay will be to
Remember to take charge of
the argument at this stage. It is your case to make, and you can define it as
narrowly as you wish, provided you are still looking at something important
enough to enable you to make a case.
Students are frequently
reluctant to narrow the focus because they are worried about not having enough
to say (especially in research papers). Thus, they set themselves from the start
an impossible task by choosing to set up the argument on a very wide topic. This
mistake you should avoid at all costs.
It is much better to argue in
depth and at length about a narrowly defined topic than to offer a superficial
cursory look at something much wider. Make sure you understand this point,
particularly in setting up a research paper. For example, a paper which looks in
detail at, say, the opening three pages of Descartes argument in theMeditationsand
which confines itself to that small portion of the text will almost invariably
produce a more manageable and persuasive paper than one which attempts to deal
with the entire content of that complex work.
Students who do not define a
clear and narrow focus for the paper almost always end up doing rather poorly,
because they commit themselves to a subject too large for detailed treatment in
a short paper.
Here are some more examples
(in point form) which illustrate the transformation of a very large general
subject, through a series of steps, into a sharp and particular focus.
1 General Subject: Pollution
Focus 1: Air pollution
Focus 2: Acid rain
Focus 3: Acid rain in BC
Focus 4: Acid rain in BC: effects on lakes and rivers
Focus 5: Acid rain in BC: effects on fresh-water fish
Focus 6: Acid rain in BC: effects on trout in the Cowichan River.
2 General Subject: Alcoholism
Focus 1: Alcoholism in the family
Focus 2: Alcoholism in the family: teenage drinking
Focus 3: Alcoholism in the family: teenage drinking in Nanaimo
3 General Subject: Popular music
Focus 1: Bob Dylan
Focus 2: Bob Dylan's early lyrics
Focus 3: Bob Dylan's first two albums: their impact on styles of song writing.
Focus 4: Bob Dylan's first two albums: their impact on styles of writing folk
4 General Subject: The French
Focus 1: The causes of the French Revolution
Focus 2: The immediate causes of the French Revolution
Focus 3: The immediate causes of the French Revolution: the economic problem
5 General Subject: Modern Sports
Focus 1: The excessive salaries of top players
Focus 2: The excessive salaries of top players: the NBA
Focus 3: The excessive salaries of top players in the NBA: the New York Knicks
6 General Subject:Hamlet Focus 1: The women in the play
Focus 2: The women in the play: Ophelia
Focus 3: Ophelia's relationship with her father
Focus 4: The scene in which Ophelia and Polonius first discuss Hamlet.
Notice what is happening in
these lists. The opening subject, which is very large and vague, is being
transformed into a very specific narrow sub-topic, which the essay is going to
look at. You should always end up with a focus which is much more narrowly
defined but which is manageable in a short argument.
An examination of the
examples above indicates some of the ways in which you can narrow down the
general subject. In dealing with a work of literature, for example, you can
limit the focus by looking at a particular character or a particular scene or
both. If the general subject is a social issue, you can restrict the focus
geographically (by looking, say, only at BC or Nanaimo) or demographically (by
considering only teenagers)
This process of narrowing the
focus is absolutely essential. The failure to do it properly is a major cause of
problems in student essays and especially research papers. Do not say you have
not been warned.
The Importance of Defining a Thesis
Once you have determined a
specific focus for the argument, then you need to develop an opinion about that
focus. In other words, you need to present an argumentative opinion about the
narrowly defined subject matter you have selected.
This point is critical. You
cannot base an argument merely on the focus you have defined. You must organize
an opinion about that focus, something we can argue about. This opinion is
called thethesis, and it
is the single most important sentence or series of sentences in the entire
For example, you cannot base
an argumentative essay on teenage alcoholism in BC or on Ophelia inHamletor
on the distribution of drugs in school. You must base the essay on an opinion
about one of those. And, in general, the sharper the opinion and the more
energetically you express it, the clearer the thesis will be, both to you and to
the reader or listener.
The thesis should answer the
question: What precisely is the presenter of this argument trying to persuade me
to believe? If that is not clear, then the argument's central purpose is fuzzy
or missing. So you need to take particular care to conclude the introduction
with a precise definition of your thesis.
When you set out to do this,
remember what we discussed in the previous section, namely, that certain
statements do not make good arguments, because there is nothing we can usefully
dispute in them. Make sure your thesis does not fall into this category (a great
many students weaken their argument fatally by presenting a very poor thesis).
Notice, for example, that the
following statements would make very poor thesis statements, because they are
not sufficiently argumentative; they state matters which we can quickly confirm
by an appeal to the text or to an existing authority:
Acid rain hurts fish.
Polonius is Ophelia's father, and when he dies, she goes insane.
Teenage drinking is very common in BC.
Bob Dylan started writing songs early in the 1960's.
These sentences are useless
as thesis statements, because they present nothing we can usefully argue about.
If that's all you offer at the end of your introduction, then the reader is
going to be very puzzled about why you are striving so hard to argue about
something obvious. Notice the difference between the above statements and the
Acid rain is the single most important threat to our quality of life, and thus
we must undertake decisive action against it immediately, no matter what the
Polonius's treatment of his daughter reveals clearly just how poisonous the
emotional climate of Elsinore really is. His attitude to life is the source of
much of the evil in the court.
Teenage alcoholism in BC is a vastly overrated problem. If there are
difficulties, these have been exaggerated in order to scare us into thinking
we are facing a new crisis.
Bob Dylan's early lyrics introduced the most significant changes in song
writing since the early days of Tin Pan Alley. In one way or another, they
have decisively influenced almost every other major song writer in North
America ever since.
These statements put
something argumentative on the table. We can easily disagree (or be reluctant to
be persuaded), and the writer is going to have to work to convince us. Such
statements do not simply announce a matter of fact about which we cannot argue
If you don't set the essay up
with a clearly argumentative thesis, then the logic of the argument will be
defective, because the reader will not be clear about what you are trying to
establish. Please make sure you understand this key point. The failure to
establish a good thesis is the single most important logical error in student
Exercises in Recognizing Potentially Useful Thesis Statements
Rate each of the following
statements as a useful thesis, that is, something which might form a clearly
opinionated basis for a good argument. Use the following scale: 0-really poor,
nothing to argue about here; 1-okay, there's an opinion, but it's quite feeble
and doesn't really challenge the reader; 3-workable thesis, which might be made
more specific and energetic; 4-really good thesis, clear and energetic.
Socrates was a historical character, and Plato is the author of the Socratic
a vastly overrated play, contradictory in its presentation of characters,
ambiguous in its literal details, and excessively melodramatic in many crucial
Modern North Americans spend a great deal of money on supplies, veterinary
medicine, and food for their pets.
Modern North Americans spend far too much money on supplies, veterinary
medicine, and food for their pets.
McIntyre and Robinson, two psychology researchers at McGill University,
conducted five separate studies of foetal alcohol syndrome. They concluded
that it is a serious problem in modern society.
The study by McIntyre and Robinson, two psychology researchers at McGill
University, which concluded that foetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem,
is a badly flawed study which produced very misleading conclusions.
Frost's poem "Mending Wall" is constructed around a central image of
two men repairing a wall between their two properties.
In Frost's poem "Mending Wall" the central image of the two men
repairing a wall is really effective in bringing out the paradoxical feelings
of the narrator.
In theCommunist Manifesto,
Marx argues that capitalism is inevitably doomed, because it generates
inescapably the very forces which will lead to its overthrow.
Ariel Theatre Company's production ofMain
The major Hollywood filmTitanicwas
directed by a Canadian, who also madeTrue
I quite enjoyed the film theTitanic.
such a sentimental and poorly scripted and acted work that one wonders what on
earth our public standards are coming to when it wins all sorts of awards and
people all over the world flock to see it several times. Is Doomsday near, or
have I missed something?
One common way of dealing with the declining salmon stocks is to increase
samanoid enhancement programs.
We should be paying more attention to dealing with spousal abuse in our
Spousal abuse is a common problem in modern society.
The recent measures used by North American police forces to combat the sale of
illegal narcotics are stupid, ineffective, and very expensive. Only some
deranged bureaucrat or someone eager to give the police added powers could
have devised such totally ridiculous procedures.
a well known story of wandering.
New Cadillacs are more expensive than new Honda Civics.
A new Cadillac is, in the long run, a much better investment than a new Honda
Hobbes begins his argument with an analysis of human nature on mechanical
Descartes's argument for the existence of God (in theMeditations)
is a fascinating, if questionable, part of his opening argument. It is well
worth a close look.
What is most effective about Wordsworth's imagery is the way it so richly
captures the ambiguity in the speaker's feelings, not just about the natural
scene but about life itself.
Wordsworth's poetry is characterized by frequent images of nature or people in
Evaluate the following as
thesis sentences (3 = really clear and useful, 2 = satisfactory but weak, 1 = no
use at all):
The Book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the world and thus
serves as an explanation for how the world is the way it is.
There are many similarities which we can draw between the Book of Genesis and
In the Book of Genesis the central concern is the depiction of the nature of
God, particularly His relationship to the earth and the people in it. What
emerges from this is an overwhelming sense of the mystery, power, and
ambiguity of God's actions among people.
The story of the sacrifice Isaac by his father Abraham is the clearest
depiction we have of just how incomprehensibly barbaric the god of the Old
Testament really is. A god who would treat His people this way is quite
clearly an evil god.
The significance of Adam and Eve is that they disobey God and are thus
expelled from paradise and have to suffer for the rest of their lives.
I find the story of the creation of Adam and Eve extremely puzzling for a
number of reasons. It strikes me that this story is very revealing about the
nature of God, but what it reveals is beyond any easy rational explanation. In
that quality, perhaps, lies the power of the story.
The story of Adam and Eve tells why Christian cultures have always been so
harsh on women and have featured so much patriarchal domination.
Human cultures are all really different. We can learn a lot about how cultures
are different by reading Genesis and comparing it with our own world.
Of particular significance in the Abraham and Isaac story is the way in which
the religious vision of Genesis (and Exodus) is so closely bound up with
political questions. In fact, this vision of God and His people inextricably
unites politics and religion. This feature makes the story particularly
The Book of Genesis clearly indicates that God made the world and everything
in it in a week.
The story of the creation of men and women in Genesis is a wonderful story
emphasizing the total moral freedom of both genders and the importance of
their living in harmony together (under the divine sanction of God). In this
story, part of God's plan calls for meaningful relations (in all senses of the
term) between men and women as equals.
Some Hints on Forming Good Thesis Statements
Given the crucial importance
of setting up a good thesis which will define the argumentative opinion you are
making the central claim of the speech or essay, you should not rush this part
of the argument. Here are some points to consider in selecting and refining the
1. The thesis must present
your opinionated engagement with the focus you have defined. So it's a good idea
to base it on a personal feeling you have about that focus, especially if you
have strong feelings about it (e.g., "This lyric is extraordinarily moving,
an example of song writing at its superlative best," "The use of
Ritalin in schools is a major scandal which must be exposed before we turn one
more generation of students into drug-addicted pill poppers," "The
high salaries of NBA stars are ruining a fine game. Let's stop the excessive
greed," "Hamlet is such a death-infected personality, so afraid of his
own emotions, that there is no doubt that he, more than anyone else, is the
source of the rottenness in Elsinore"). Notice the energy in these thesis
statements; they leave no doubt about what the writer is committing herself to
in the argument.
2. If you have no strong
feelings about a particular subject for which you have to construct an argument,
then you will still have to find a firm opinion on which to base your case. This
may require you to think about the subject at length, to conduct a certain
amount of reading about it, to discuss the matter with others, and, finally
perhaps (if all these fail), to commit yourself to a position which you may not
be sure about.
3. Remember that statements
indicating that you find a particular subject confusing or difficult to sort out
are opinions and often make good thesis statements: e.g., "The abortion
debate I find impossible to resolve in my mind; there are such cogent arguments
on both sides, without any middle ground, that it is impossible to rule out
either the pro-choice or the pro-life arguments"; "Hamlet is such a
confusing personality that I find the play quite frustrating; the
inconsistencies in his portrayal are a serious flaw in the play"; "The
arguments and counter arguments about the environmental crisis leave me
incapable of making up my mind on this issue." Such statements are
opinions, which you will have to argue; as such, they are useful thesis
4. Similarly, a thesis
statement can be a mixed opinion, in which you call attention to conflicting
judgments of a particular subject: e.g., "The film has excellent acting and
some superb cinematography. These make it really good. Unfortunately, the script
in places is poor. Hence, the experience of viewing it is not as enthralling as
it might be." Such mixed opinions are quite common as thesis statements in
arguments about literary and philosophical subjects and in essays which review
fine and performing arts events.
5. Do not rush the thesis. If
necessary take two or three sentences (as in most of the above examples) to get
the clearest possible statement of the precise opinion you are presenting and
defending in the argument. Do not proceed with the argument until you have
defined your thesis as precisely as possible.
6. Try not to be too timid in
presenting the thesis. In particular, avoid limp words likeinteresting,positive,
and so on. Often it's a good idea to overstate the opinion (i.e., really go out
on a limb), so that you know you have a real job to do in making the case. At
any event, make the thesis as bold and assertive as you dare. If it looks too
aggressive once you have written the essay, then you can moderate it.
7. A particular subject area
that causes trouble for those setting up the argument is one which is, at first
glance, largely factual (e.g., a discussion of a nuclear reactor, or treatments
for AIDS, or Galileo's astronomical observations). If you are going to discuss
these, you must make sure that you cast the discussion in the form of an
argument. You can do this by setting up the thesis as a statement about the
significance of the focus: e.g., "Galileo's astronomical observations were
a breakthrough in the history of science; they effectively challenged the
traditional views of the universe and introduced a bold new method of
understanding the heavens." In the course of the argument which follows,
you will, of course, be discussing the details of Galileo's work, but the
central point of the essay is an argument that this work was significant (which
is an opinion about the focus).
8. If all else fails, then
you can try applying the following formula. Write out a sentence of the
following form:In this essay
I am going to argue the single opinion thatX
(the particular focus of the essay) is very significant because (give your
reasons for thinking the focus important). Then get rid of the words in italics.
The Start of an Outline for the Argument
All right, let's put all the
above material together into the form of an outline. The initial preparations
for the argument (which may take considerable time to develop) should result in
something written down under the following headings:
(Focus 3, if necessary):
Here are some examples of the
start of an essay outline:
Subject A: Aboriginal Rights Focus 1: Aboriginal Land Claims in
Focus 2: The Nishga'a Treaty
(In this essay I am going to argue the single opinion that) Ratifying
the Nishga'a treaty is essential for the political stability and political
prosperity in British Columbia. While the proposed treaty may not satisfy
everyone (or even a majority), we simply cannot afford not to proceed in good
faith with what has been proposed.
Subject B: The Ministry of Health and Welfare Focus 1: The welfare system in BC
Focus 2: The distribution of welfare in BC
Focus 3: The distribution of welfare in BC: problems with the present system.
(In this essay I am going to argue the single opinion that) Our system
of distributing welfare in BC is gravely inadequate. It is creating a great
many serious problems and failing properly to address those concerns it is
meant to alleviate.
Subject C: Warfare and Technology Focus 1: The machine gun
Focus 2: The machine gun: its impact on forms of combat
No modern weapon has had such a revolutionary impact on the conduct of warfare
as the machine gun. It has transformed not only nature of combat but the way
we think about battle.
Subject D: The short story "The Chrysanthemums" Focus 1: The main character, Elisa.
Focus 2: Elisa's dissatisfaction with life
Focus 3: Elisa's dissatisfaction with life: the causes
The central point of this story is Elisa's inability to deal with what is
frustrating her because of her lack of self-confidence and courage.
Such outlines look easy
enough, but you may have to take time with them. And the time is worth spending,
because if you do not clearly sort out for yourself and the reader just what you
are arguing about (the subject, focus, and thesis), then it is not going to
matter very much what you do in the argument itself. If the opening does not
define the argument properly, then there is usually no recovery.
Every five minutes you devote
to making this initial outline defining the essay will save you at least an hour
when you come to write the introduction out in full.
Some Problems with Introductory Paragraphs
The introduction, which
defines the main argument, should, as we have seen, move from a mention of the
general subject, through a narrowing of the focus, to a clear and energetic
thesis statement. This sounds simple enough, but there are a few common problems
which you should take care to avoid.
1. Do not make the thesis too
abrupt and awkward. Take the time to go through the steps outlined above. If you
are doing that properly, then the introduction should be a fairly substantial
paragraph of between 150 and 200 words (at least). Never offer as an
introduction a one-sentence paragraph something like the following: "In
this essay I am going to discuss how Odysseus is a fascinating character."
That is much too abrupt and awkward. As a general rule, keep the expressionsIorthis
essayout of your style.
2. Do not stuff the
introduction with irrelevant detail (e.g., about the biography of the writer or
the historical details of the book). Keep directing the reader to the particular
focus and thesis you wish to concentrate upon. Stay directly on the contents of
the discussion you want to present.
3. Make sure that the
argument is clearly established by the end of the introduction. By that point
the reader must be able to answer the following two questions accurately: What
is this argument focusing on? What specific opinion about that does the arguer
wish me to believe by the end?
4. Do not make the thesis a
promissory note which lacks an argumentative edge: for example, don't make the
thesis statement something like the following: "This essay will discuss the
women in Hamlet's life." Establish clearly the opinion about the women in
Hamlet's life which you wish the reader to accept as persuasive. "This
essay seeks to show how Hamlet's attitude to women, especially his verbal and
physical aggression against them, lies at the heart of what is rotten in
Exercise With Sample Opening Paragraphs
Below are two pairs of
opening paragraphs, the first pair on theOdysseyand
the second pair on the Book of Genesis. Compare the two members of each pair.
Which do you think is the more effective opening? Why? If you were in a position
to recommend revisions to the writers of these paragraphs (especially the ones
you find less effective) what would you say?
the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus, in his return home from the Trojan
War. In fact, most of the book is taken up with various tests of this epic
hero, encounters in which he has to demonstrate his ability to overcome
obstacles of various kinds. In the process of following Odysseus through these
adventures, we, as readers, come to recognize many important qualities of the
central character. We also learn a great a deal about what he values and about
the nature of the world he lives in. There are many episodes in this exciting
story which might serve to introduce us to these issues, for in virtually
every adventure we learn something important about the hero and his values.
One obvious and famous example is the story of his encounter with Polyphemos,
the kyklops. A close inspection of this incident tells us a great deal about
what is most important in the poem. In fact, if we attend carefully to what is
going on here, we come to understand some central features of Odysseus'
character: his insatiable curiosity, his daring, his cunning, his
ruthlessness, and his very strong, even egotistical, sense of himself. (198
the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus, in his return home from the Trojan
War. This is a very old story, composed by the poet Homer at some point in the
eight century BC and handed down form many years before it was written down.
At first the poem existed only as an oral composition; it was recited by
bards. Only later was it put into the form in which we have it today. No one
really knows whether or not a poet named Homer actually existed or not. Homer
also composed theIliad,
the story of Achilles. Both of these books played a central role in Greek
religion and education, and they have been important parts of the tradition in
Western literature ever since. TheOdysseywas
probably written after theIliad.
a much easier poem to read than theIliad.
The story moves much more quickly, and there are a lot more adventures. One
adventure that is particularly well known and important is the encounter with
Polyphemos. This essay will discuss this episode, focusing on its importance.
Bible is one of the most important texts in Western society. Christianity has
helped lay many of our moral foundations, and these are still an important
part of modern society. For instance, many people still follow the ten
commandments. However, not all of Christian beliefs still fit into our modern
world. So the Bible is a source of oppression. There are many examples of
this. For example the creation story clearly is oppressive to women. The
dominion of people over nature also endorses oppression of animals. And there
is lots of killing of people by the Israelites in the name of the Lord. This
also is oppressive. And the story of Abraham and Isaac is oppressive as well.
of the central issues of the book of Genesis is the relationship between
particular characters and the Lord. Repeatedly in the narrative, God selects
an individual for special favours, and that individual becomes, in effect, an
example of the appropriate relationship between God and humanity, a role model
for the faithful. One obvious example of this point is Abraham, one of the
most important of the patriarchs. He displays complete faith in God, and God
rewards him with the Covenant. But Abraham's faith makes large demands on him,
and we are forced to recognize in him just what a truly faithful relationship
to the Lord demands. Many places in the Abraham story bring out this point,
but we can best appreciate it by exploring the famous account of Abraham's
sacrifice of Isaac. No other section Genesis so explicitly and compellingly
offers us an insight into the religious life defined and illustrated in the
Old Testament, an apparently harsh but passionate and compelling belief. (164
Here are two more pairs of
opening paragraphs, this time not on literary topics.
a lot of talk these days about how we just have to do something about guns.
Guns have always been a part of civilization. Human beings have used guns for
hunting and for sport for centuries. A gun is also an expression of human
creativity. Many guns are fine objects of art. And anyway if we don't have
guns the government will control us even more than they do now. Besides the
right to protect ourselves is obviously important. And guns don't kill people;
people kill people. If we cannot have guns then how are we going to be fend
off the police when they start attacking our homes? Are we supposed to use
kitchen utensils? So I say we should forget about any further gun control
legislation. That's what this essay will argue. (135 words)
question of increased governmental control over guns raises a number of
important issues. Of course, every story about someone (especially a child)
running amok with a gun has a lot of people crying out for more regulations
and restrictions on the sale of guns. In some quarters to oppose such
legislation is seen at once as a sign of one's right-wing, red-neck
credentials. So anyone who proposes to argue reasonably that those opposing
more gun legislation may have a good case, or at least a case worth paying
attention to, is unlikely to get a proper hearing in many forums. However, the
attempt to present such a case must be made, because bringing down more
restrictive legislation on guns will not merely do nothing to deal with our
concerns about lethal weapons in the wrong hands, but it will also threaten a
number of other important personal rights which we take for granted. (154
the past fifty years, Canada's domestic political agenda has been to a large
extent driven by the question of Quebec's relationship to the rest of the
country. Who on earth can keep track of the number of conferences devoted to
the issue of Quebec separation or the money spent dealing with it? And yet we
never seem to get any closer to a solution. Why is that? Well, one answer may
very well be that no one in power in Quebec or in Ottawa has ever really
wanted it solved. The Quebec issue is, to a large extent, a false crisis kept
alive by federal and provincial governments in order to make sure Quebec gets
a disproportionate share of governmental handouts in exchange for supporting
the Liberal Party as the only possible federal option and for persuading the
rest of the country that only the Liberals can deal properly with Quebec. It's
time we saw through this boondoggle and moved our concerns for Quebec's
constitutional place in Canada onto a distant back burner. Let them eat cake,
while we concentrate on more important matters.
Canada there is a major political problem with Quebec and the matter of
separation. This essay will discuss this issue. It will talk about Rene
Levesque and the origins of the Parti Quebecois. The visit of De Gaulle to
Quebec will also be considered, as well as the Emergency War Measures Act
invoked by Prime Minister Trudeau. Then the essay will consider the question
of the referendum over sovereignty. And finally it will make suggestions about
what lies ahead in the foreseeable future.
Look very carefully now at
the various reasons you found one member of each pair better as an introduction
to an argument. Then look at those reasons again. Remember these criteria when
you have to evaluate your own introductory paragraphs.