Get the Definition of Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

female student writing
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The term composition has multiple meanings:

  1. The process of putting words and sentences together in conventional patterns.
  2. An essay, usually brief and written for training purposes. Also known as a theme.
  3. A college writing course (also called freshman composition), often required of first-year students.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin "to put together"

Examples of Student Compositions

Examples and Observations

  • "Giving students specific subjects on which they were to write goes back to the ancient world; but subjects specifically meant for written composition (that would not be delivered orally) first appeared in textbooks only in the early 19th century."
    (Robert J. Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)
  • "When I refer to composition, I mean the institutionally supported desire to organize and evaluate the writing of unauthorized writers, to control writing in practice, and to define it as an object of professional scrutiny."
    (David Bartholomae, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Macmillan, 2004)
  • Rhetoric and Composition
    "Student enrollment today in narrowly defined 'Rhetoric' courses is tiny compared to the vast armies of students who populate broadly inclusive 'Composition' courses. 'Composition' as a term and as an educational requirement is a relatively new invention, whereas 'Rhetoric' has lived through the centuries in the courtroom, the assembly, the memorial gathering. Composition's home is in the classroom, emerging in the 19th century. We can see this coming out, for example, by comparing Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Principle of Composition,' published in 1846, which deals only with creative writing, to Alexander Bain's English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual, published in 1866, which is concerned with our subject here."
    (Steven Lynn, Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • Composition and the Writing Process
    "[O]ne of the most important goals of a writing class is to enable students to develop an effective writing 'process,' so that they can continue to learn after the class has ended. The term 'process' is, therefore, of key importance for anyone entering the field of composition, both as a teacher and a researcher."
    (Irene L. Clark, "Process." Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)
  • Composition and Ideas
    "The literal meaning of compose is 'to form by putting together.' A composition is a piece of writing formed by putting together the ideas you have on a subject. This suggests two important points about writing a composition. The first is that you must have some ideas on the subject about which you are going to write. The second is that you must be able to put these ideas together in such a way that they will form an effective whole."
    (J. Warriner and F. Griffith, English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977)
  • Letters and Compositions
    "When was the last time you wrote a 'composition'? Outside of the separate life of a school, when does anyone put pen to paper to write a composition? And if compositions bear no relationship to reality, why continue to assign them? Why not letters as a way of getting students to talk? Of course, we would have to answer the letters, to talk back, to respond not only to the mechanical quality of the student's writing, but also to what he has to say to us."
    (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Random House, 1971)
  • On the Lighter Side: Holden Caulfield's Composition on the Egyptians
    "You can't stop a teacher when they want to do something. They just do it.
    The Egyptians were an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere.
    I had to sit there and listen to that crap. It certainly was a dirty trick.
    The Egyptians are extremely interesting to us today for various reasons. Modern sciences would still like to know what the secret ingredients were that the Egyptians used when they wrapped up dead people so that their faces would not rot for innumerable centuries. This interesting riddle is still quite a challenge to modern science in the twentieth century.
    He stopped reading and put my paper down. I was beginning to sort of hate him. 'Your essay, shall we say, ends there,' he said in this very sarcastic voice. You wouldn't think such an old guy would be so sarcastic and all."
    (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951)

Pronunciation: com-pa-ZISH-shun