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The Roadrunner's Guide to English: Thesis/Topic/Main Idea

Main Idea/ Thesis Statement

Main idea

Author: Lydia Postell

The main idea, as we call it in reading class, is the same as the topic sentence in English class.  The main idea, like the topic sentence, simply states what the reading passage is about in one sentence.  There are several ways to find the main idea that you can apply to topic sentences as well.

1. Find the topic of the selection.  In order to find the topic, ask yourself who or what the selection is about.  When you answer either one of those questions, you will have found the topic.  Here are a couple more hints.  The topic will often be a word that is repeated throughout the selection.  For instance, if you were reading a paragraph about dinosaurs and how they became extinct, you would see the reason they became extinct repeated several times throughout the selection, many times using different words. 

2. Another important concept about the topic is that it is always written as a few words or even as one word.  Sometimes the title of the selection is the topic.

3. A third way to look for a main idea is to consider the wording.  When you see words that suggest you could find the information by creating a list, then you have found the main idea sentence.  Examples of these word groups are several kinds, three disadvantages of, several reasons for, three causes of, and others along these lines.  These types of sentences announce the points the reading will deal with.

A couple of ideas to keep in mind:  Main idea sentences take in everything in the reading passage, so when you look for a main idea sentence, be sure to look for the sentence that can take in all the points the paragraph or reading makes.  Another important idea to keep in mind is that the main idea, like the topic sentence, may appear in other locations besides the beginning of an essay.  While it may appear in the first two or three sentences, it may also appear in the middle or at the end of a reading selection.  Don’t limit yourself by looking only at the beginning!  Look for the most general sentence, and then ask yourself who or what the selection is about.  If you are struggling at that point, you might wish to look at the wording of the sentences to see if one suggests that a list might be coming.  If so, then that is your main idea sentence.

Thesis Statement

Author: Jenny Crisp

In writing, a thesis statement is the most important sentence you will write in an essay. For this class, and likely for most of your college courses, it should be the last sentence – or sometimes the last two sentences – in your introduction paragraph.

The thesis statement will say something about your topic, but doesn't just state your topic. For example, you would not want to write

[Bad thesis]: This is an essay about how everyone should own a dog.

Instead, your thesis statement should say something that is debatable – that is, it should have some attitude. If no one could possibly argue with your thesis statement, what would be the point of writing at all? So, let's work on that thesis statement from before:

[Bad thesis]: This is an essay about how everyone should own a dog.

How could any reader argue with that? It's your essay – you know what it's going to be about. No one reading your essay knows what it's about yet – otherwise why read it? So, to give it some attitude, let's quit talking about the fact that it’s an essay:

[Decent thesis]: Everyone should own a dog.

OK. That's better – that thesis statement has an attitude. But, if I'm reading your essay, I still don't really know where you're going with this, do I?

That's where the other part of the thesis statement comes in: the essay map. An essay map gives your reader some idea of what's coming. What would you talk about in trying to convince your friends that everyone should own a dog? Those are the topics that you will explain in your body paragraphs, and they are the things you should list in your thesis statement’s essay map. Here's an example:

Good thesis: Everyone should own a dog because dogs provide companionship, provide protection, and provide great entertainment.

Now, there is a thesis statement! That one has attitude – it takes a side on the topic. It also provides a map of where the essay is going. With a thesis statement like this, readers know to expect a body paragraph about companionship, then one about protection, and then one about entertainment. Sounds more interesting than just saying “this essay will be about dogs,” huh?

Main Idea - Practice Exercise1

Select the stated main idea in the following passages.

Passage 1

Many people claim that they do not have time to work exercise into their daily schedules.  However, exercise can be easily worked one's daily routine.  For instance, one can do stretches while taking a shower.  While standing in line at the grocery store, one can flex the abs or clench the rear.  One can even do calf raises while talking on the phone.  More ideas: try walking around the building during lunch breaks and always take the stairs.

Passage 2

Many parents tend to think of day-care centers as breeding grounds for colds.  But new research suggests that children in day-care centers appear to develop immunity to many of the viruses responsible for the common cold.  An article published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that children ages 6 to 11 who had been enrolled at large day-care centers as toddlers had about one-third as many colds as children who had stayed home as toddlers.  Dr. Thomas Ball, one of the authors of the study, says that when children have colds as toddlers, their immune systems are learning from these experiences, and this learning will come back to protect children later in life.  Such news should be reassuring to parents whose preschool children are in daycare.

Main Idea - Practice Exercise 2

Select the stated main idea in the following passages.

Passage 1

One sign of pregnancy is nausea upon awakening.  Other signs are increase in size and tenderness of the breasts.  Still other signs include increase in the frequency of urination and an increase in the size of the abdomen.  Thus, aside from pregnancy tests, a woman can sometimes recognize the early signs and symptoms of pregnancy.

Passage 2

Is this year's holiday season making you tired?  You can easily perk up by following a few easy tips.  First, get plenty of rest.  Second, snack wisely.  Third, keep fit.  Exercise is very important during the holidays--and not just for its weight benefits.  Fourth, take a relaxing bath, and finally try sharing with others.

Passage 3

Are you confused by your holiday leftovers?  Well, don't save any food that has been sitting around on your dining room table or counters for more than two hours after cooking.  Do place the leftovers in the refrigerator while they are still warm.  Don't waste those turkey scraps:  add them to a salad or make a delicious soup.  There are many strategies that you should use when dealing with holiday leftovers.  You can even pool your leftovers with friends and neighbors by having an after-holiday potluck dinner.

Passage 4

Yesterday's storm did considerable damage to our neighborhood.  Many stately oaks were uprooted, and several large old pine trees crushed the roofs of at least five houses.  The hail that accompanied the storm damaged all of the cars that were not under shelter, and my neighbor's home was completely demolished.  And my own "detached" garage was certainly detached from its foundation.  Clearly, yesterday's storm caused much destruction.

Passage 5

Some folks think that pets are trustworthy and harmless creatures.  However, it's surprising what little thieves these creatures can be.  My daughter's ferret has stolen my checkbook, my calculator, my wallet, and my change purse.  My officemate's dog stole a neighbor's T-bone steak right off the grill.  My old dog Moonbear was known to steal freshly baked cherry pies and peanut butter cookies, while the dog that lived below us stole his master's roast one day.

Passage 6

Lara is quite different from her sister Lisa.  Lara's hair is jet black and curly, while Lisa's is blond and straight.  Lara stands 5 feet 10 inches in her stocking feet, while Lisa is a mere 5 feet 2 inches (in heels!).  Furthermore, Lara's complexion is olive, quite unlike Lisa's rosy hue. 

Passage 7

Many people are not good listeners.  They may not even realize that they lack this skill.  But almost anyone can become a better listener by being aware of certain negative listening habits.  One such habit is jumping to conclusions before hearing the entire message.  Another bad habit is to nod off when someone is speaking in a monotone.  Turning off to speakers who are not necessarily experts is also a negative listening habit. Yet another bad habit to avoid is the habit of reacting emotionally to certain words.

Thesis Statement Handout