Essays and Arguments, Section Three

[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC,  is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 2000]


3.0 Setting up the Argument: Definition (1)

Under the term definition, 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.

3.1 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 the Introduction).

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 the general subject area being 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 specific focus for 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 the thesis of the argument.

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 the introduction.

3.2 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 typical examples.

In 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 words)

Shakespeare's Hamlet is, 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 Hamlet's character.

Notice carefully how these introductions proceed. The writers open by announcing a general subject (the sale of illegal narcotics in Canada, Shakespeare's Hamlet). 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 matter).

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 arguing here.

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.

3.3 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.

1. The film To Ragoon on a Slave Ship tells 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 the Narnia. 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).

2. The film To Rangoon on a Slave Ship came out in 1995. It is the best film I have ever seen. Everything about it was splendid. Everybody should see it. (33 words)

3. 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 the Narnia, 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)

4. To Rangoon on A Slave Ship is 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.

3.4 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 subject.

For example, suppose you wish to write an essay on Hamlet. 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 in Hamlet. 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 scene.

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 write.

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 the Meditations and 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.

Essay 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.

Essay 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

Essay 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 songs.

Essay 4
General Subject: The French Revolution
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

Essay 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

Essay 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.

3.5 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 the thesis, and it is the single most important sentence or series of sentences in the entire argument.

For example, you cannot base an argumentative essay on teenage alcoholism in BC or on Ophelia in Hamlet or 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:

1. Acid rain hurts fish.

2. Polonius is Ophelia's father, and when he dies, she goes insane.

3. Teenage drinking is very common in BC.

4. 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 following.

1. 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 cost.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 significantly.

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 essays.

3.6 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.

1. Socrates was a historical character, and Plato is the author of the Socratic dialogues.

2. Shakespeare's Hamlet is a vastly overrated play, contradictory in its presentation of characters, ambiguous in its literal details, and excessively melodramatic in many crucial scenes.

3. Modern North Americans spend a great deal of money on supplies, veterinary medicine, and food for their pets.

4. Modern North Americans spend far too much money on supplies, veterinary medicine, and food for their pets.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Frost's poem "Mending Wall" is constructed around a central image of two men repairing a wall between their two properties.

8. 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.

9. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx argues that capitalism is inevitably doomed, because it generates inescapably the very forces which will lead to its overthrow.

10. Ariel Theatre Company's production of Main Street is interesting.

11. The major Hollywood film Titanic was directed by a Canadian, who also made True Lies.

12. I quite enjoyed the film the Titanic.

13. The Titanic is 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?

14. One common way of dealing with the declining salmon stocks is to increase samanoid enhancement programs.

15. We should be paying more attention to dealing with spousal abuse in our society.

16. Spousal abuse is a common problem in modern society.

17. 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.

18. Homer's Odyssey is a well known story of wandering.

19. New Cadillacs are more expensive than new Honda Civics.

20. A new Cadillac is, in the long run, a much better investment than a new Honda Civic.

21. Hobbes begins his argument with an analysis of human nature on mechanical principles.

22. Descartes's argument for the existence of God (in the Meditations) is a fascinating, if questionable, part of his opening argument. It is well worth a close look.

23. 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.

24. Wordsworth's poetry is characterized by frequent images of nature or people in nature.

Evaluate the following as thesis sentences (3 = really clear and useful, 2 = satisfactory but weak, 1 = no use at all):

1. 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.

2. There are many similarities which we can draw between the Book of Genesis and life today.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. The story of Adam and Eve tells why Christian cultures have always been so harsh on women and have featured so much patriarchal domination.

8. 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.

9. 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 fascinating.

10. The Book of Genesis clearly indicates that God made the world and everything in it in a week.

11. 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.

3.7 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 thesis:

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 statement.

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 like interesting, 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 that X (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.

3.8 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:

General Subject:
Focus 1:
Focus 2:
(Focus 3, if necessary):
Thesis.

Here are some examples of the start of an essay outline:

General Subject A: Aboriginal Rights
Focus 1: Aboriginal Land Claims in BC
Focus 2: The Nishga'a Treaty

Thesis: (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.

General 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.

Thesis: (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.

General Subject C: Warfare and Technology
Focus 1: The machine gun
Focus 2: The machine gun: its impact on forms of combat

Thesis: 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.

General 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

Thesis: 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.

3.9 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 expressions I or this essay out 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 Denmark."

3.10 Exercise With Sample Opening Paragraphs

Below are two pairs of opening paragraphs, the first pair on the Odyssey and 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?

Paragraph A

Homer's Odyssey recounts 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 words)

Paragraph B

Homer's Odyssey recounts 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 the Iliad, 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. The Odyssey was probably written after the Iliad. The Odyssey is a much easier poem to read than the Iliad. 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. (194 words)

Paragraph C

The 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. (110 words)

Paragraph D

One 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 words)

Here are two more pairs of opening paragraphs, this time not on literary topics.

Paragraph E

There's 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)

Paragraph F

The 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 words)

Paragraph G

For 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.

Paragraph H

In 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.


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