Thesis and Topic Sentences

The most common Argument error is the failure to decide what you want to prove. Essays that merely “talk about” a topic score very poorly in academic classes.

I am not overstating the case when I say that every good essay is an argument, every paragraph is a smaller argument, and every well-constructed sentence of more than a few words is an argument too. The trick of good essay writing is to let every sentence make its argument on the basis of what’s just been said and to have it lead to the next.

Any deviation from the smooth flow of your argument takes the risk of having your readers leap to conclusions far from where you want them to land.

Example 1

A Paragraph without a Topic Sentence or Thesis.

Money is a broad concept and can be defined in many ways. It is used in our everyday lives and we can list all the scenarios for its use.  For example, if we want to travel around the world, we’ll need money, or to buy a car, or in many other situations. Like the saying goes, “Money does bring happiness.”  In society, people portray money as distinguishing someone’s social status. People judge how much one is worth based on their specific income. Furthermore, people generally think money has value, but the money made from reality TV shows doesn’t have any inherent value; it is simply pieces of paper or numbers in a ledger. In Milton Friedman’s essay, “The Island of Stone Money,” we examine the idea of the monetary system on Yap and concluded that the American monetary system is identical, but is used according to a different concept. The Yap used stones to make a large purchases such as bringing home a dead warrior’s body. Yap in both villages would know that the ownership of a large fei had changed hands even if the stone never moved. Similarly, Americans use paper bills for purchases, which seems like a cliché, but the Yap certainly had creative ways to manage their money.

Notice the large number of claims in search of a thesis.

Most of the sentences contain or advance small arguments, but they do not combine to develop any one main idea that could be called the paragraph’s thesis.

Money is a broad concept
It has many definitions
It’s used for travel and big purchases
It makes the world go around
It buys happiness
It distinguishes social status
Its value depends on how it is acquired
It has no inherent value
It can be reduced to numbers on a ledger
Yap and America have identical monetary systems
Identical but different in some unspecified way
The Yap use stones for big purchases
They do so without having to physically move the symbols of wealth
Americans use paper currency
The Yap use money more creatively

Unclear Premises

Example 1

Clear Arguments Require Clear Claims

DSH: You’re confusing me, MyStudent. This part I get:

The exchange of something valuable like loaf of bread or a house for a flimsy piece of paper does not confuse people as it was established that the flimsy piece of paper had enough value to get that bread.

DSH: This part takes an unexpected turn:

However, the value that people give money is somewhat confusing as the wealth is determined by something as arbitrary and finite as gold even though it isn’t the same everywhere.

DSH: Once you establish that the value of money can be calculated in bread, and vice versa, it makes no sense to appeal to its value being determined by gold. The dollar has not been based on gold for nearly a century. Technically, its value is that it’s guaranteed by “the full faith and credit of the US government.” You seem to be hinting at this valuation method in your next sentence (but ignoring it in this one).

DSH: This I really don’t understand:

Bringing one U.S. Dollar to another country such as England may make it worth more even though its still the same flimsy piece of paper with a number one on it. This interaction only being based on something like “economic state of the country”.

DSH: Do you mean the dollar can buy more than “a dollar’s worth” of Euros? In other words, are you comparing the relative values of the currency exchange? Or do you mean that the dollar taken to England would buy more bread than it would at home? Very unclear.
[By the way, the second sentence is an illegal FRAGMENT. Also, it would Fail For Grammar (FFG) for a punctuation error.]

DSH: Even more confused here:

The concept of having the fabric of how society functions, from purchasing bread for eating just to live the next day to countries having more more political power, determined by something that isn’t constant sounds absurd. Yet the use of the abstract idea that is money somehow makes the world turn round.

DSH: Inflation, deflation, seasonality, half-price sales, the death of Jose Fernandez, all sorts of phenomena affect the value of Jose Fernandez jerseys, MyStudent. They affect the value of money too, since money is only worth what it can buy, and what it can buy is always changing. [If dollars were still based on gold, would that mean that a dollar would always buy a gram of gold? Or would it merely mean that a dollar could always be exchanged for “a dollar’s worth of gold,” whether that was one gram, or two grams, or an ounce?]

Argument Missing

Example 1

Argument Delayed Until P4

—There are a lot of questions dealing with the monetary system we use as Americans today. Americans as well as other nations have a vast range of opinions on the concept of money. Americans have their opinions on foreign money, and people from other nations have their own specific opinions on the American dollar.

DSH: This opening section makes no arguments at all, MyStudent. As an opening strategy, it completely fails to engage your readers’ attention. You say there are “a lot of questions,” and “a vast range of opinions,” both American opinions and non-American opinions. Just one actual question, phrased as a provocative claim, would be a better hook. When you finally name your provocative question, the first three sentences become completely irrelevant. CUT THEM.

—Why will people in other countries take American dollars, but not American coins?

DSH: Great question, but you don’t answer it. Rhetorical Questions are not prohibited, but they do require a license. They are loaded weapons that kill your argument when they misfire. If you MUST ask one, answer it immediately. You don’t want your readers making up their own minds. Tell them what they need to know.

—They both have the same monetary value, but people in other countries favor the dollar over coins. A dollar bill, four quarters, ten dimes, twenty nickels, and one hundred pennies means the same thing to an American, it all adds up to a $1.00. When looked at from a foreign person’s point of view, the coins have less value than the single dollar bill.

DSH: Why? You still haven’t answered the question. Also, I have to dispute your claim that Americans value 100 pennies the same as a one dollar bill. Try giving a Wawa customer 104 pennies in change.

—Most Americans have personal bank accounts and the bank sends statements at pre-disclosed time intervals to each member. These statements can be viewed on a computer, smart phone, or even on a physical piece of paper mailed to [you!] from the bank. On the statement there is the bank [members!] name, address and account information. One can see the history of [your!] withdraws, deposits and transfers. One can also see how much money [they!] have spent over the time period, and how much more [they!] have saved for whatever reason/s.

DSH: This long section bears no apparent relation to the earlier sentences, MyStudent, which means you’re no longer developing a single main idea in P1, which means you should be starting P2 here. Are you making an argument at all in this section? If so, it would have something to do with the intangibility of modern money transactions. You don’t say so, but the unspoken claim is that while pennies and dollar bills change hands, our bank transactions are not physical. You undermine that claim a bit by including the paper statement. But if you’re trying to create a contrast between the coins and digital counters, you need to do so BEFORE you launch into this description.

—A very popular question concerning the American banks is, “Where is the money that the bank says one has?”.

DSH: Is it a popular question? I have yet to hear a single person enter a bank and demand to be shown her cash.

—The bank acknowledges the fact that the money is owned by a specific person. That person can use [their!] money at [their!] own will, but can’t see that money that [they’re!] using. Before reading and listening about [“Stone Money”,] the Brazilian real, and other forms of currency from other nations I understood the basic concepts of how American banks worked.

DSH: Are you making an argument here at all, MyStudent? There is mystery in the situation of our invisible transactions, but you haven’t raised a question for your readers. We’re accustomed to checking accounts, debit cards, automatic deposits. We need to be SHOWN how nutty that is because we already take it for granted.

—I never really took my time to try to figure out why Americans use the system [they!] use today and how the banks work . Reading about these topics and doing this research has led to many questions stated above as well as many answers.

DSH: I do understand what you’re doing, MyStudent. You’re indulging in a paragraph-long “introduction” intended to lay out some preliminary questions and background before you get to the actual essay. The trouble with that approach is that you lose readers with every delay. I promise I will ALWAYS read every word you write, but I’m the only reader you can count on. You have to earn all the others.

[Looking ahead to P2, I see you’re still not ready to begin your argument. You begin with another delaying tactic: First, a little background.]

[Now that I’ve read P2, I see you still haven’t begun your own argument.]

[Ditto for P3]

Only in P4 do you actually redeem the entire history of the development of currency, MyStudent, in return for your observation that new bank transfer apps make it possible, in effect, to “share a fei.” Your analogy is interesting, but not enough to carry an entire essay.

However, if it WERE to be your primary point, you should have LED YOUR ESSAY with the very bold claim that, for example, “a 2016 finance app FINALLY makes our modern technology as efficient as the money system of the Yap islanders who used huge stone disks to buy a house.” With that hook, you could have held our attention more effectively.

Paragraph Organization

Example 1

Repetitious Argument Reorganized

DSH: Your organization pattern makes it hard for readers to follow your argument, MyStudent. I’ve clustered your sentences below into categories.

Invention of Money:
1. Somewhere along the line the idea of money was invented.
2. Money is the idea of worth in a physical form.
3. Money made it easier to acquire goods because everyone can benefit from having money.
4. Money has this made up value that would be easier to exchange for goods.
5. On the other hand everyone values money so it would be easy for the pigs owner to get an even trade.

The Barter System:
1. Before there was a physical form of money people used the barter system.
2. The barter system was the exchange goods for things people needed and sometimes even labor exchanges.
3. For example if someone had a goat that produced high quality milk they would get a lot of people trying to barter for the goat.

When Barter Fails:
1. If those people tried to barter something that held no value for the goat the trade would be unsuccessful.
2. The barter system only works if both parties benefits from the exchange.
3. In the barter system someone had to have exactly what the seller needed or wanted.
4. If someone had a pig that they thought was valuable but no one wanted it, the pig would then be worthless.
5. People may value this pig differently.

DSH: Before this organization, your argument wandered among the three categories, MyStudent. Now that’s it’s easier to see your claims, let’s try to condense the sections into the most straightforward presentations.

When Barter Fails: Before money, when our ancestors wanted corn, they had to trade their pigs with someone who had corn and wanted pigs. If corn was scarce, or pork eaters were few or distant, they had to accept bad deals or eat their own animals.
[The Barter System: We don’t really need this section now.]
The Invention of Money: Money eliminated the need to find a perfect trading partner. Because money represented both pigs and corn, pig owners could sell for money when pigs were most prized, and buy corn for money when it was cheap. Whatever they eat, whatever they produce, everyone values money because it represents value in physical form.

Your paragraph revised:
Before money, when our ancestors wanted corn, they had to trade their pigs with someone who had corn and wanted pigs. If corn was scarce, or pork eaters were few or distant, they had to accept bad deals or eat their own animals. Money eliminated the need to find a perfect trading partner. Because money represented both pigs and corn, pig owners could sell for money when pigs were most prized, and buy corn for money when it was cheap. Whatever they eat, whatever they produce, everyone values money because it represents value in physical form.

DSH: Next, we’ll decide whether you want to insist on the physical nature of money. Its history has been one of increasingly non-physical abstraction.

Recognizing the Argument

Example 1

I’m going to distill your argument to its essence if I can, MyStudent.

—P1. It’s ironic that something as flimsy as a piece of paper is the symbol for the economic forces that drive all human actions.
—P2. I now understand that the only value of a dollar is what it can buy.
—P3. Yap Islanders used huge stones as currency, which could “change hands” without moving. Similarly, the money I “own” is mostly not physically possessed by me. My wealth is acknowledged by my bank, for example, without any particular dollars being allocated to me.
—P4. The stability of any currency issued by a government depends on its users’ faith in the stability of the government.
—P5. Bitcoin, the first important currency not issued by a national government, tests its users’ faith even further. A billion dollars worth of Bitcoin may be sold for a billion dollars today, but tomorrow, if the world loses faith that Bitcoin will be honored as a token of exchange, those purely digital “coins” will be worth nothing at all.
—P6. Money, not currency, drives all human actions.

Struck to its bones, your argument appears to be that money is symbolic, that it represents faith among its users that it will be honored, or that it has value based on some sort of backing. Which of these would you say is most accurate? Now that I have you wondering what your premises and conclusions are, can you produce the language that guides your readers through the steps of your argument more effectively?

 Controlling Your Terms

In complex, abstract arguments, no reader can be expected to follow an argument that depends on poorly-defined terms, particularly where several words are used interchangeably to mean very similar things.

In your Stone Money arguments, most of you used the terms Money, Cash, Currency, Value, and Worth and others, often without clearly identifying what you meant by the terms. Trying to establish that money is imaginary or non-physical while referring to it as currency is a losing bet since most readers think of currency as the dollar bills in their wallet (very physical).

Example 1

DSH: You really go around and around on the topic of whether money is physical or not, MyStudent. Your P2 bounces back and forth from observations about whether “the same” money can be possessed by two people, whether possession of physical currency is needed for wealth, whether people have actually paid for a computer when they don’t hand over dollars. I got lost twice reading your paragraph

MyStudent: Initially, I was introduced to the concept through the aforementioned NPR broadcast. The hosts of the broadcast discussed how all money cannot be truly accounted for. If someone makes a deposit of cash to a bank, then it is possible for that same cash to be loaned to a startup business. The money that the original man deposited is still his, but its physical form is no longer in his possession. (NPR) Despite not having physical money, an individual’s wealth is undisputed through digital numbers. A significant amount of purchases, withdrawals, deposits, etc. occur by simply transferring these numbers. For example, if someone wanted a computer then they would give them money in order to acquire it. Where this gets interesting is that most people will not purchase an expensive computer with physical cash. Rather, they will swipe a debit or credit card and their digital numbers will transfer over to the store. Now they have officially bought the computer as far as the business is concerned. This may appear normal at face value, but when I was thinking critically about it, it was almost baffling to consider that someone can get a real item with the use of non-existent currency. This made me realize that money is more imaginary than it is real.

DSH: It could easily be reduced in size and complexity to this:

The broadcast began with the startling claim that not all money can be accounted for. It soon became clear that they meant there aren’t enough physical dollar bills for everyone to transfer their wealth into currency at any time. But money is different from currency. If someone deposits a check for $1000 into a bank, the bank can lend “the same” $1000 to a startup business without currency being involved at all. The $1000 that the original man deposited is still his, and the startup also has $1000, but the startup owes the bank some money, and the bank owes the original depositor. Most purchases, withdrawals, deposits, etc. occur by simply transferring these numbers. For example, an expensive computer is usually purchased by swiping a debit or credit card. The cardholder’s account goes down; the store’s account goes up. This only seems baffling until we get used to the idea that real goods and services are transferred for the sake of non-existent currency. Money may be imaginary, but its effects are real.

DSH: I’m not sure the argument is quite coherent yet, and I would never consider modeling all your paragraphs for you this way, but I hope you can see the value of being careful with your terms in an abstract argument. Money and currency, for example, must be distinguished.


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