Précis Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A précis is a brief summary of a book, article, speech, or other text. Plural: précis.

The basic characteristics of an effective précis are conciseness, clarity, completeness, unity, and coherence. "The most important task," says Barun K. Mitra, "is to ensure that the original sequence of events and the flow of ideas remain unchanged" (Effective Technical Communication: A Guide for Scientists and Engineers, 2006).

Etymology
From the Old French, "condensed"

Examples and Observations

  • "I would say that the ability to write a précis is the central language skill. For a start, it is a craft essential in all professions and businesses; indeed, anyone whose work includes dealing with documents at some time (and that accounts for most people) will need précis skills as a matter of course. . . .

    "Such vocational considerations, though important, are not in my view the most telling, however. The fundamental value of précis is that it tests and exercises every aspect of linguistic competence." (Richard Palmer, Write in Style: A Guide to Good English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)
  • "[O]rganization of ideas, logical sequencing of points, clear and meaningful expression, [and the] use of language suitable to the situation are essential for writing précis effectively. The writer of précis must be able to identify the essential ideas in a given passage and separate them from nonessential ideas. But at the same time a précis is not a [type of] creative writing, inasmuch as it is merely a condensed restatement of the original writer's ideas, points, etc." (Aruna Koneru, Professional Communication. Tata McGraw-Hill, 2008)

    Sample Précis: Aristotle on the Character of Those in the Prime of Life

    Original Passage (199 words)
    "It is evident that those in the prime of life will be between the young and the old in character, subtracting the excess of either, and neither exceedingly confident (rashness is such) nor too fearful but having the right amount of both, neither trusting nor distrusting everybody but rather making realistic judgments and not directing their lives only to what is fine or what is advantageous but to both and neither to frugality nor to extravagance but to what is fitting.

    Similarly in regard to impulse and desire. And they combine prudence with courage and courage with prudence, while among the young and the old these things are separated; for the young are brave and lack self-restraint, the older prudent and cowardly. To speak in general terms, whatever advantages youth and old age have separately, [those in their prime] combine, and whatever the former have to excess or in deficiency, the latter have in due measure and in a fitting way. The body is in its prime from the age of thirty to thirty-five, the mind about age forty-nine. Let this much be said about the kinds of character of youth and old age and the prime of life." (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book Two, Chapter 14. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991)

    Précis (68 words)
    "The character of those in the prime of life lies midway between that of youth and of age. Neither rash nor timid, neither skeptical nor overtrusting, they usually make choices on a true basis. They are not given to excess in desire, nor to lack of feeling or parsimony. They live respecting both honor and expediency. In short, the most useful traits of youth and age are theirs." (James J.

    Murphy and Richard A. Katula, A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Hermagoras Press, 2003)

    Methods and Purpose

    "A précis is not an outline, but a summary or digest. It is useful as an exercise in grasping the essential ideas of an already completed composition and in stating these ideas in concentrated form. The précis shears away all elaborations of the thought and gives only what is left, in such a way as to make the summary a complete composition. It does not, therefore, skeletonize the original composition so much as it reduces its scale. Many of the articles in The Reader's Digest are only précis, so skillfully done that the average reader does not know that he is reading a summary. Since the précis says a great deal within a brief space, it is of great service in taking notes on library assignments and general reading." (Donald Davidson, American Composition and Rhetoric.

    Scribner's, 1968)

    Pronunciation: PRAY-see

    Also Known As: abstract, summary, executive summary, synopsis

    Alternate Spellings: precis