Thesis vs. Topic

As you begin to formulate a thesis for your essay, think about the following distinction between topic and thesis. A topic is a general area of inquiry; derived from the Greek topos (place), "topic" designates the general subject of your essay. For instance, "Carroll's nonsense in 'Jabberwocky' sounds sensible" would be a weak thesis but a good a topic for an essay. From a topic, many specific theses can be extracted and developed. A thesis is more specific and delimited; it exists "within" your topic. In your essay, you need to use an argumentative thesis.

        In argumentative writing, the writer takes a stance and offers reasons in support of it. Crucial to any piece of argumentative writing is its thesis. The thesis arises from the topic, or subject, on which the writing focuses, and may be defined as follows:

A thesis is an idea, stated as an assertion, which represents a reasoned response to a question at issue and which will serve as the central idea of a unified composition.

        If we've selected as a topic the notion that Carroll's nonsense sounds sensible, we need to define what constitutes "sense" and "nonsense" and we might ask how "nonsense" functions in "Jabberwocky": Why does the poem's nonsense sound sensible? And (returning to the questions posed by our paper assignment) what are the implications for ideological analysis? One possible thesis is:

"Jabberwocky" sounds sensible because, as Robert Frost points out, "the sound of sense existed before words." As a work that conveys meaning without making literal sense, Carroll's poem illustrates the paradoxical ideologies of nonsense: "Jabberwocky" both posits an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, and uses playfulness to encourage children to enjoy language. In this sense, it undermines language as a reliable system of meaning, but also teaches readers how to understand and use language in meaningful ways.

(Here, the the first establishes the basis of the claim, the second sentence is the thesis, and the third sentence offers a new version of the thesis.)

        When you compose a thesis statement, think about how it satisfies the following tests:

1. Is it an idea? Does it state, in a complete sentence, an assertion?

2. Does it make a claim that is truly contestable and therefore engaging?

(Yes, because one could also argue that Carroll's "Jabberwocky," may illustrate the playfulness of language, but does little to help someone understand how language works.)

3. Are the terms you are using precise and clear?

(Key terms here seem to be: "nonsense," "sense," "meaning," and the idea that nonsense both contributes to and takes away from the ability to use language effectively.)

4. Has the thesis developed out of a process of reasoning?

        Once these questions have been satisfactorily answered, use the resulting thesis to organize your evidence and begin the actual writing. As you do so, bear in mind the following questions:

1. What is my purpose in writing? What do I want to prove?

(Notice the explicit purpose in the thesis statement: it does not merely point out that nonsense can sound sensible; instead, the thesis takes a position on this issue, and then answers the question "So what?")

2. What question(s) does my writing answer?

3. Why do I think this question is important? Will other people think it equally important?

4. What are my specific reasons, my pieces of evidence? Does each piece of evidence support the claim I make in my thesis?

5. Where does my reasoning weaken or even stop? Am I merely offering opinions without reasoned evidence?

6. How can I best persuade my reader?

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This page was last updated on 3 September 2000