We talk about the definition of a thesis statement in all of the courses I teach at College of DuPage. The idea of understanding a thesis, crafting a thesis and using a thesis as an anchor in text can be a complex topic to review. In many department meetings our faculty has debated the term thesis and how it is applied. After all, we are wordsmiths and etomologists — we marinate in the nuances and idiosyncrasies of language. But I have to give credit to my esteemed colleague, Dr. Daniel Kies, a master of linguistics, who most eloquently and accurately describes a thesis in his English 1101 HyperTextbook:
Thesis: The Thread and the Hinge
Though many rhetoricians have commented on the similarity of the word thesis and the name Theseus, I know of no etymological connection between the origins of the word and the name. However, many writers and rhetoricians through the years have often noticed a metaphoric connection. Theseus was the mythical hero of ancient Greece who found his way through the Labyrinths of Crete by following a simple thread. Similarly, an essay’s thesis also allows readers to find their way through the labyrinth of ideas by following a single thread of thought — the thesis. That is why the thesis is often called the central idea, the governing idea, or controlling idea of an essay. (Note the word idea here, not sentence. As we will see below and in the next reading after this page, Thesis: Traits and Myths, the thesis itself can take on a variety of forms. A single sentence is just one possibility.) As the controlling idea, the thesis governs the content of all the remaining information in the body of the essay.
When we formulate theses, we organize information around a central idea. That is what I mean by the thesis governing the remaining information of the essay. Many writers literally use the thesis as a metric to decide what information is relevant to the essay (and thereby include it) and what information is irrelevant (and thereby exclude it). In this way, the thesis functions as a “gate-keeper,” controlling what information is included in the essay and how much.
To my mind, therefore, the most apt analogy for the thesis in academic writing is not the “thread” of thought woven throughout the essay, but instead the hinge on a door. If an essay were a door, the thesis would be its hinge. Everything pivots on the hinge. The whole door, no matter how well built, no matter how beautifully decorated, or strong, is useless unless it has a hinge that can serve its purpose. A door cannot even function as a door without its hinge. Likewise, the thesis serves as the pivot around which all information in the essay is organized.
To get a real sense of what the thesis contributes to meaning, we need to examine an example. The following passage is from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914 (pp. 3-4). [I have added letters to the beginning of each sentence to aid our discussion and shortened it a bit for our purposes.]
(a) Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. (b) These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
(c) I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. (d) I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. (e) I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. (f) This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what — at last — I have found.
(g) With equal passion I have sought knowledge. (h) I have wished to understand the hearts of men. (i) I have wished to know why the stars shine …. (j) A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
(k) Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. (l) But always pity brought me back to earth. (m) Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. (n) Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. (o) I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
(p) This has been my life. (q) I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
I think all of us would agree that this is a beautifully written passage: it’s powerful, emotive, coherent, even poetic. Those qualities derive in part from the fact that Russell is careful to write a clear thesis, which governs all the rest of the content in the passage. Notice that sentence (a) functions as the thesis of this example. Note too that everything else (the discussions of love [c-f], knowledge [g-j], and pity [k-o]) refer directly to that thesis and expand on the ideas presented in that thesis.
In short, Russell’s thesis is the hinge on which everything else in that passage pivots. In this way, we can see too that the thesis is the first step in helping to organize information for a reader. It is the thesis that serves as the focus around which all other bits of information rotate. A good thesis exhibits at least four distinguishing traits: it must make a statement (not issue command or ask a question), must be a specific statement, must be well supported, and must be relatively high in what Mortimer Adler called the orders of knowledge. Let’s examine each of those traits next.
Thesis as Statement
In a study of academic writing, Richard Braddock (310-323) noted that theses can be simple (stated explicitly, either in one sentence or in several consecutive sentences), delayed-completion (begun in one sentence and completed at some point later in the essay), assembled (scattered in bits and pieces throughout the essay), or even inferred (never explicitly stated — left for the reader to surmise). Yet no matter how the thesis is presented, it should be clearly defined, or, in the case of an inferred thesis, clearly definable. That means that writer (and reader) should be able to articulate the thesis in a simple, explicit statement — a declarative sentence.
Examining Russell’s passage again, we can see that Russell’s is what Braddock would call a simple thesis — stated as a single, declarative sentence. That claim that the thesis should be a statement, a declarative sentence, is not accidental or arbitrary. The thesis must be a statement if it is to fulfil its primary purpose. Rhetoricians since the time of the ancient Greeks have understood that only statements make a proposition, a subject about which something can be asserted and supported (Corbett 45). Neither a command (Fight to preserve our democratic freedoms!) nor a question (Is democracy threatened by the influence of money in politics?) asserts anything. The command supersedes the assertion and assumes its own validity, whereas the question makes no claim at all about its subject. Only the statement — the simple, declarative sentence — makes a proposition in which the writer must assert something about the subject. (There is more on the importance of the thesis as statement in the page called Making Meaning.)
The writer who fails to define the thesis clearly risks a common pitfall. That writer has not committed him- or herself to anything. The consequence of this is that the paper will lack unity (Crowley 34-6). A unified essay is one in which all of the writer’s arguments, directly or indirectly, support his or her thesis. If the writer has not defined the thesis clearly, the writer will not know what arguments need support. Hence, the writer will ramble.
Thesis as Specific Statement
A thesis can be a clearly defined, declarative statement and still lead to a disorganized essay if the thesis is not adequately specific. A specific statement will work better for you as a writer and is more likely to be a focused thesis. Any writer needs a thesis that he or she can successfully develop within a short essay. Using the general topic of economics, you might propose a thesis such as, “The American government spends more money than it has.” That thesis, though clearly defined in Braddock’s terms, is so general that a writer would never be able to cover it adequately in a short essay. The writer would either move from one economic or political issue to another, discussing each only superficially, or cover only one or two issues and, thus, failing to demonstrate his or her own thesis. A more narrowly focused thesis, such as “The Constitution of the United States should be amended to guarantee a balanced budget,” commits you to a specific idea that you can carefully analyze and thoroughly discuss in four or five pages.
Notice below how I can take Russell’s thesis (repeated in sentence 1 below) and systematically weaken it to the point of inaneness by simply making the statement progressively less specific, as in (2) and (3) below:
- Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.
- Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life.
- Three things are important in my life.
This demonstrates the need to make the thesis a specific statement.
The Thesis and its Support
Thirdly, any thesis must be well supported. If the essay is to be effective — if it is to persuade readers — the writer must provide both evidence and arguments valid and copious enough to satisfy the skeptical reader. Support is the foundation upon which the writer builds rational appeal, by demonstrating a knowledge of the subject matter, and ethical appeal, by citing the authorities and the experts who have also written on this subject.
Adler’s Orders of Knowledge
Finally, consider a statement like The sun rises in the east. That statement seems to have all the necessary traits of an effective thesis: it is a declarative statement, it is specific, and it could be supported by all sorts of data. As a thesis it has all the traits one needs, except one — it’s dull. That’s because the statement is a “statement of fact” as Adler (222) would call it, and statements of facts do not make interesting theses. Mortimer Adler divides knowledge into three classes: statements of facts, statements about facts, and statements about statements (Adler 222-224). If a thesis manages to express only a statement of fact, the paper will be nothing more than a report or a recitation of facts. This is fine if all you want to do is to report the facts you have collected. However, if the writer wants a paper that is more than a report, the writer must start with a thesis that is more than a statement of fact. In other words, an interesting thesis is relatively high in Adler’s orders of knowledge.
For example, consider what we could predicate of a subject like democracy.
|1.||Statements of fact:||Democracy is a form of government.|
|2.||Statements about facts:||Democracy is the best form of government for the newly emerging nations of Europe and Asia.|
|3.||Statements about statements:||Democracy’s inherent superiority as a form of government lead to its victory over Marxist regimes in the former Soviet bloc.|
Similarly, consider what Russell might have predicated about passion below.
|1.||Statements of fact:||Our passions have a strong effect on our lives.|
|2.||Statements about facts:||Our passions control what we do and what we think.|
|3.||Statements about statements:||Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. [Russell’s orginal thesis]|
In both examples, above, statement (1) as a thesis gives us a report: the classification scheme of different political systems and the definition of the key terms. Adequate for what it is. Statement (2) gives us something to think about. We need to collect facts, undoubtedly, but we need more: we need to argue the relative merits of one governmental system over the others in different contexts. More interesting. Statement (3) opens an whole host of interrelated arguments. It is more complex, unquestionably, but it also presents the greatest opportunity for the writer to demonstrate his/her skills. Russell’s thesis is stronger since he composes his ideas on a relatively higher order of knowledge, as Adler would say. Statements about statements make better theses since they are more likely to lead the writer into more interesting, more specific, topics.
Tentative and Definitive Theses
Finally, we should distinguish between a tentative and a definitive thesis. To have a tentative thesis, also called a working thesis, is crucial in the early stages of the writing process. Your working thesis will help you develop your essay by suggesting questions, ideas, and strategies that you can use in the body of your essay. What the writer must remember however is that the working thesis, the tentative thesis, is just that — tentative. The tentative thesis was made to guide the development of an argument, but the working thesis is subject to revision just as any other part of the essay is subject to revision as you learn more about your subject. Late in the writing process, after the writer has collected, arranged, evaluated, reresearched, rearranged, and reevaluated the supporting materials, the writer settles on a definitive thesis, a final thesis. In this way, the writing process itself becomes a way to discover new ideas, beyond what you already know, to create something that comes from you. It is truly an act of making meaning.
A well-crafted thesis becomes the hinge-pin, the pivot, of your essay, upon which the entire essay hangs. And like a real hinge of a real door, it is essential to the operation of the whole, for just as the door itself, no matter how beautiful the construction or solid the material, is useless without the hinge, so too the thesis becomes the central element enabling the function of the whole essay. Though you must consider a host of issues as you compose (such as style, syntax, organization, originality, usage, and diction), developing a good thesis is central for developing a good essay.
For more discussion on this topic, including examples of — and myths about — the thesis, see
For an essay on the central role that thesis plays in “making meaning,” read
Adler, Mortimer. Dialectic. London: Kegan Paul, 1927.
Braddock, Richard. “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose.” The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. Ed. Gary Tate and Edward P. J. Corbett. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for Modern Students, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Crowley, Sharon. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
© 1995, 2016 Daniel Kies. All rights reserved.
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Last revision: 01/10/2012 11:56:48