thesis (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An effective thesis does more than just announce the main (or controlling) idea of your essay or speech. It also suggests your purpose and point of view. (CSA Images/Snapstock/Getty Images)


1) A thesis is the main (or controlling) idea of an essay, report, speech, or research paper, sometimes written as a single declarative sentence known as a thesis statement. A thesis may be implied rather than stated directly. Plural: theses.

2) In the classical rhetorical exercises known as the progymnasmata, thesis is an exercise that requires a student to argue a case for one side or the other.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "to put"

Examples and Observations (definition #1)

  • "My thesis is simple: in the next century mankind must harness the nuclear genie if our energy needs are to be met and our security preserved."
    (John B. Ritch, "Nuclear Green," Prospect Magazine, March 1999)
  • "We watch baseball: it's what we have always imagined life should be like. We play softball. It's sloppy--the way life really is."
    (from the introduction to Watching Baseball, Playing Softball)
  • "Through Mansfield's skillful handling of point of view, characterization, and plot development, Miss Brill comes across as a convincing character who evokes our sympathy."
    (thesis statement in Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy)
  • "Suppose there were no critics to tell us how to react to a picture, a play, or a new composition of music. Suppose we wandered innocent as the dawn into an art exhibition of unsigned paintings. By what standards, by what values would we decide whether they were good or bad, talented or untalented, success or failures? How can we ever know that what we think is right?"
    (Marya Mannes, "How Do You Know It's Good?")
  • "I think people are disturbed by the discovery that no longer is a small town autonomous--it is a creature of the state and of the Federal Government. We have accepted money for our schools, our libraries, our hospitals, our winter roads. Now we face the inevitable consequence: the benefactor wants to call the turns."
    (E.B. White, "Letter from the East")
  • "It is possible to stop most drug addiction in the United States within a very short time. Simply make all drugs available and sell them at cost."
    (Gore Vidal, "Drugs")
  • The Two Parts of an Effective Thesis
    "An effective thesis is generally composed of two parts: a topic and the writer's attitude or opinion about or reaction to that topic."
    (William J. Kelly, Strategy and Structure. Allyn and Bacon, 1996)
  • Drafting and Revising a Thesis
    "It's a good idea to formulate a thesis early in the writing process, perhaps by jotting it on scratch paper, by putting it at the head of a rough outline, or by attempting to write an introductory paragraph that includes the thesis. Your tentative thesis will probably be less graceful than the thesis you include in the final version of your essay. Here, for example, is one student's early effort:
    Although they both play percussion instruments, drummers and percussionists are very different.
    The thesis that appeared in the final draft of the student's paper was more polished:
    Two types of musicians play percussion instruments--drummers and percussionists--and they are as different as Quiet Riot and the New York Philharmonic.
    Don't worry too soon about the exact wording of your thesis, however, because your main point may change as you refine your ideas."
    (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)
  • A Good Thesis
    - "A good thesis tells the audience exactly what you want them to know, understand, and remember when your speech is done. Write it as a simple, declarative sentence (or two) that restates the speech purpose and states the main points that support the purpose. Although you may formulate a thesis statement early in the speech development process, you may revise and reword it as you research your topic.'
    (Sherwyn P. Morreale, Brian H. Spitzberg, and J. Kevin Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, and Skills, 2nd ed. Thomson Higher Education, 2007)

    - "An effective thesis statement singles out some aspect of a subject for attention and clearly defines your approach to it."
    (David Blakesley and Jeffrey L. Hoogeveen, Writing: A Manual for the Digital Age. Wadsworth, 2011)

    Examples and Observations (definition #2)

    "Thesis. This advanced exercise [one of the progymnasmata] asks the student to write an answer to a 'general question' (quaestio infina)--that is, a question not involving individuals. . . . Quintilian . . . notes that a general question can be made into a persuasive subject if names are added (II.4.25). That is, a Thesis would would pose a general question such as 'Should a man marry?' or 'Should one fortify a city?' (A Special Question on the other hand would be 'Should Marcus marry Livia?' or 'Should Athens spend money to build a defensive wall?')"
    (James J. Murphy, A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)


    Pronunciation: THEE-ses

    Also Known As: thesis statement, thesis sentence, controlling idea