A thesis statement is a sentence or group of sentences generally near or at the end of the introduction of an essay, which makes it clear to the reader what the writer’s stance / claim / position is and suggests the organization of the argument to come.
You should construct your thesis in a way that:
- answers the essay question! 🙂
- makes the focus/stance of the essay clear in the introduction,
- focuses on specifics rather than sweeping general statements, and
- suggests the structure of the arguments/paper to come
Helpful shorthand formula:
- THESIS = SIGNAL + FOCUS + STANCE + PREVIEW OF ARGUMENTS (A1, A2 … An)
These example thesis statements are all for the same essay, but they use different styles and writing techniques:
Essay Question: Based on the sources we have read, which have you found to be the most helpful understanding of happiness, and what should we do to achieve it?
- In this essay, it will be argued that the most helpful approach to happiness is to [A1] consider it as a “total emotion” and therefore a goal in itself, [A2] secure the minimum life conditions necessary for it, [A3] understand that our adaptation to good things means it will decline over time, and [A4] seek out challenge and variety to sustain it.
- While Layard and Nettle take very different approaches to the study of happiness, they both offer equally helpful guides to achieving it in our own lives. In this essay, I will support their views that [A1] because happiness is a “total emotion” it is an end in itself, that [A2] there are minimum life conditions necessary for it, that [A3] it seems not to last because we adapt so easily to good things, and that [A4] we must therefore seek variety and challenge in life to sustain it.
- In this essay, I will defend Layard and Nettle’s views that the route to achieve happiness is by understanding its [A1] self-sufficiency, [A2] minimum conditions, [A3] temporariness, and [A4] its basis in variety and challenge.
- PURPLE = signposting – these words/phrases signal to the reader that this sentence is the essay’s thesis
- GREEN = focus – these words/phrases set out the focus or topic of the essay.
- RED = stance – these words/phrases suggest the writer’s stance or attitude towards it
- BLUE = structure / sub-arguments – these words/phrases preview the sub-arguments necessary to support the overall stance and suggest the order they will appear in. These arguments will be supported in detail in the body paragraphs.
- UNDERLINE = “parallel” structures – in lists, all elements should have equal grammar (e.g., all nouns, all noun clauses, etc.).
THESIS LANGUAGE – DOS & DON’TS
- signal language (e.g., “In this essay, it wll be argued that… ”)
- verbs that can take a “that” clause (argue, prove, show, demonstrate)
- noun clauses – … that + is/does x due to y (= full sentence + argument)
- summary/topic reporting verbs + vague noun phrase (e.g., “I will discuss/talk about/mention some causes/results of x”)
- vague words (e.g., “some reasons”, “several differences” etc.)
- question-word phrases (e.g., “…how/why x happens” etc.)
- A thesis statement is a preview of the essay in miniature, so it is very important that it be a clear answer to any essay question you were given. To make the thesis a clear answer, include (synonyms of) the key terms from the question.
- A thesis statement may be one sentence, like Example 1, or spread out over more than one sentence, as in Example 2
- While thesis signposting is not always necessary, it is a helpful way to signal to your ENG 101 teacher that you have remembered to write a thesis!
- The essay is a personal genre, therefore it can be appropriate to use the first person pronoun “I” when setting out your thesis (i.e., “I will argue that…”). If you want to be more formal, you can disguise the “I” with the passive voice (“It will be argued that…”).
- Notice the grammatical parallelism of the structure/sub-argument phrases in the examples above – in Example 1 all the sub-arguments begin with a verb in the imperative, in Example 2, each one is a noun clause beginning with “that”, and in Example 3 each one is a noun / noun phrase.
- Notice the use of verbs in the phrases that report the arguments: argue that / support the idea that, etc. These verbs are followed by noun clauses that include argument language like “because” or “therefore”. In general, you should avoid verbs like describe or explain which tend to be followed by nouns or reported question clauses rather than arguments. For example, “I will describe how we should understand happiness” does not preview an argument, but leads to a question (the reader asks “so how?”). On the other hand, in the phrase “I will show/claim/posit that happiness is a ‘total emotion’ and therefore an end in itself”, the reporting verb has to be followed by an noun clause and argument which specifies the reason to believe the claim. Note also that Examples 1 and 2 are much clearer summaries for the reader than Example 3, where “self sufficiency” is rather mysterious because it is hard to summarize this complex idea in a single noun.
- Notice the lack of examples in the sub-arguments – they give a general idea of what will be argued in each paragraph, but they do not give too much detail that would slow the reader down. For instance, we know that the second paragraph of the essay will deal with “minimum life conditions” for happiness, but the thesis doesn’t waste time listing what these conditions are, as these will be listed and explained in the body paragraph itself.
- FAE Writing Criteria entry under Thesis Statement