The Thesis Statement


1) An acceptable argumentative thesis statement is logical, tenable and can be refuted.


a)"I like apple pie, Mother and America" is not a logical argument.  It may be perfectly true, or it may not be true -- but I cannot logically refute you.  You are not describing facts outside of yourself; rather, you are simply referring to your own preferences. An argumentative thesis refers to facts and conclusions that can be disproved by other facts.


b) "My mother is the best mother in the world" is not a tenable argument.  First, you would have to create a standard of motherhood that could be applied to all women across time.  Second, you would have to gather data on every single mother in the world.  If you cannot get the data, and you cannot set a standard for comparison, you cannot logically compare all of the mothers that ever were. 


c) "Americans have had the most important influence on world politics the last 20 years" is a logical tenable argument which can be refuted. However, there are significant difficulties to overcome. The scope of such a paper is extremely broad. First, "important influence" must be specified in order to create a tenable argument.  What would evidence of influence be? The dollar amount attached to American acts of charity? The response of other countries to American acts of war? Could movies or fashion or music be a good measure American cultural influence on other countries? What about American control of the WWW? Not only must influence be defined, so, too, "world politics" must also be specified. Which of those possible areas of influence are political? Moreover, if you can establish a tenable standard, you must compare America to other countries, to prove American influence is greater than theirs. In short, this is a paper that is too long, and needs qualification to say anything useful, which leads us to our next point...


2) A good thesis statement passes the "who cares" test and adds a new perspective to the topic in question.


Assume your readers are a bit hostile; they are thinking "who cares?" and "tell me something new!" The paper above would do neither.


First, the paper should be written for an audience who cares --who have an interest in the topic and the argument. Each paper has a different "ideal" audience. As you write, ask yourself whom do you think would care?


Second, the argument of the thesis must be fresh, adding new perspectives by uncovering hidden relationships between elements in the topic, by adding new categories and concepts to the topic, and by moving the accepted boundaries of the topic.  After reading the paper, the intended audience should see the topic in a new way. 


Consider, for example, three thesis statements about the bubonic plague:


[Hidden Relationships]  The bubonic plague was not caused primarily by rats and fleas; rather it was passed to human populations primarily by cattle murrain (anthrax).  New archaeological research shows the bones of cattle infected by anthrax in most cities where the plague struck.  Humans living in close contact with cattle, not rats and fleas, caused the rapid spread of the plague.


[New Categories and Concepts]  The bubonic plague is not a mysterious disease that came and went only in the Middle Ages.  Rather, it is part of a persistent family of pandemics, including the Spanish Flu of 1919 and the current Avian Flu virus.  Catastrophic diseases can be combated more effectively if we recognize similarities between past methods of containment and present methods. We need to create solutions that change as rapidly the disease changes.


[Accepted Boundaries]  The bubonic plague has always been most important to histories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe.  However, the plague had equally devastating effect at the end of the Roman Empire.  If we argue that our present world was shaped by the "great erasure" caused by the plague of the Middle Ages, so too we should agree that the Middle Ages were themselves shaped by the "great erasure" at the end of the Roman Empire.


3) In American-style research papers, the thesis statement is usually handled deductively:  it is placed at the beginning of the paper and indicates the main arguments that will be advanced in the paper. 


a) If the thesis statement is placed in the beginning of the paper, and it is one sentence only, that sentence should include not only a good logical tenable argument, but also indicate the main ideas that will be argued in the paper. If the thesis statement is longer than one sentence, it may be accompanied by sentences that indicate the main ideas that will be argued in the paper. 


i) If the paper is less than five pages, the thesis should be placed in the first paragraph. 

ii) If the paper is 5 - 10 pages, the thesis should be placed in the first, second or third paragraphs.

iii) If the paper is 10 - 50 pages, the thesis should be on the first, second or third page. 


b) If the thesis is placed at the end of the paper, it usually indicates that the author intends a more lyrical, inquisitive or meditative work.  The argument is advanced inductively, and patience is demanded:  the reader is asked to learn along with the author.