First-Year Preceptorial

Keywords for Essay Writers

Hugh Jenkins, English Department, Union College

I must begin with an acknowledgment and a warning. The acknowledgment: I've borrowed most of these ideas from other teachers or writers, most prominently George Orwell ("Politics and the English Language"), Joseph Williams (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace), Fear and Schiffhorst (Short English Handbook), Strunk and White (The Elements of Style), Susan Horton (Thinking Through Writing), and Aristotle (Rhetoric). The warning: these are only guidelines and suggestions, not rules and forms. They can't cure all writing problems and don't even start on the biggest: physical and mental laziness. But when used in concert with hard work, they should help.

Keyword definitions:

  • Thesis, or concept:

    A "concept" differs from a thesis or a theme in that it is looser, less prescriptive. A thesis should detail what exactly you are going to talk about and how you are going to do it. It may take the whole essay to do the same with a concept. This distinction doesn't mean a conceptual essay doesn't have an organization and an argument, however. There are a number of ways of presenting and developing your concept or thesis. You may explore it, through personal experience or meditation; you may define or redefine it; or you may argue about it. In most cases, I think, you will find yourself doing all three during your essay. Almost any statement implies an argument of some sort; almost any argument implies a defining of terms; and almost any definition implies an exploration of assumptions.

  • Paragraph:

    your basic unit of thought, whose first sentence is indented five spaces to distinguish it from your last basic unit of thought. A good paragraph should develop one idea or action thoroughly. This usually means that a) your first sentence should somehow signal (if only by mentioning—you needn't feel enslaved to the "topic sentence") what exactly your paragraph will develop; b) each subsequent sentence should somehow relate to the main topic of your paragraph; often, most or all the sentences will have the same or similar subjects; and c) your paragraph should thus be a pretty solid chunk of writing. The occasional short--one or two sentence--or rambling--one or two pages--paragraph can be rhetorically effective; generally, though, paragraphs run from about five to ten sentences. But please, that's not a rule!

  • Transitions:

    your way of moving from idea to idea--that is, from sentence to sentence, or paragraph to paragraph (or from section to section of your essay). See my sheet on transitions.

  • Subordination:

    the syntactical enslavement of one idea to another. Subordination produces clauses that can't stand alone: they are dependent on another, the main idea (clause), to complete their meaning. There are three basic types of subordination: relative, temporal, and logical. Relative subordination uses relative pronouns.  Example: "My English teacher, who illustrates all the problems with Union I've detailed above, still thinks he deserves more money." Temporal subordination uses subordinating conjunctions emphasizing time: when, after, since, once, before, until, etc., as in When I told him what he had done to me, I felt better." Logical subordination also uses subordinating conjunctions, though of a more causal or conditional kind: although, though, because, while, if, unless, as, how, etc., as in "Although I hate my English teacher, I still think of him as God on earth." As you can see, subordination is a great way of moving between ideas: it can pick up what was said before, rephrase or shorten it, and place it in relation to what will be said next. Thus, most subordinate clauses come before the clauses they modify, though again this is not a hard and fast rule.

  • Nouns and verbs:

    the keys to good writing. Get the nouns and verbs right, and everything else--subordination, qualification, even argumentation--will usually follow. Here's an example: "Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains."  Pretty good, huh?  Straightforward and complete, there's nothing to add.  Try adding to it: "Workers [of all kinds oppressed by the tyranny of the bourgeoisie] of the [industrially developed] world [come together in massive organizations so as to present a united force]; [in your present condition] you [all, even those seemingly well off] [maintain such wretched material lives that you] have nothing [whatsoever] to lose but [ironically enough] your chains [which shackle you to the wretched conditions you live in]." What do the bracketed passages add to the meaning and force of the original expression?

  • Passives and nominalizations:

    The passive voice transforms the object of the verb into the subject, thus making the subject passive (not acting).  Example: "Hugh was loved by his students."  There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive, as the previous sentence shows, as long as you make the agent—the acting part of the sentence—clear.  The passive becomes a problem when you use it to hide who is doing what, as in this sentence: "U.S. objectives must be enforced in the Middle East."  Sounds good, right?  But look what the passive hides: who will do the enforcing.  And all of you of draft age, guess who that who will be. A nominalization turns a verb into a noun.  For example, "I conducted an investigation of my English teacher's political views," rather than the simple "I investigated my English teacher's political views."  Nominalizations are occasionally useful, particularly in transitions, but in general, if you can use a simple verb, do so.

  • Colons and semicolons:

    the grammatical props of good writing. They serve the same purpose as subordination--relating ideas to one another--and, like subordination, it's almost impossible to write either clearly or well without learning how to use them.  Colons serve two major purposes: to introduce lists (as in this sentence) or long quotations, or to introduce explanatory clauses. I'll give you an example of this latter function: this sentence is one.  That is, the second clause explains what the first clause calls attention to.  Two warnings: 1) don't use colons after "such as" ("He liked many sports, such as: football, baseball, etc."); there a comma will do; 2) generally don't use colons after forms of the verb "to be" (as in "The main reasons for doing it are: sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll"); there no punctuation is needed. Semicolons are more complicated: they serve a clear grammatical function as well as a relational one. First, you must use a semicolon to join two main clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction! When you don't, you have committed the comma splice, one of the deadliest of the "Deadly Sins!  This sentence is a comma splice, don't ever do it. This sentence is correct; write like this and you will join the choir eternal. Also use a semicolon to separate elements in a series that are individually punctuated, as in "Exxon has spilled oil in Valdez, Alaska; San Francisco, California; and even Jacksonville, New York." But more important than these grammatical necessities is a semicolon's use as a key player in the rhetorical team; it can set up balanced clauses, distinctions, and antitheses. A famous (and sexist) example of an elegantly balanced antithesis achieved with a semicolon is from Shakespeare: "She is beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; she is a woman, and therefore to be won." Put an "and" in place of the semicolon, or break the statement into two sentences, and it loses all its force.  So use your semicolons correctly, intelligently, and artfully.