Ambiguous (Thesis and Author’s Ideas)

Typically, there are three areas within the context of writing where students construct ambiguous statements:

Thesis: Your thesis within the introductory paragraph of the essay

Author’s Ideas: Your presentation of the author’s ideas within the essay

Revision Plan: See the comment “Ambiguous (Revision Plan)” for more information.

The Thesis

Constructing the thesis is a difficult task. According to prevailing course textbooks on “how to write a thesis,” a thesis is basically an unproved statement. It typically assumes a position in the introductory paragraph of your paper. Depending upon a student’s taste, sometimes he or she will position the thesis as the very first sentence; on the other hand, sometimes a student will present some introductory information and then place the thesis as the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.

In considering the thesis, the student must construct a thesis that is attainable, measurable, and clear from ambiguity. It doesn’t matter where the student chooses to place the thesis, if the reader can’t find parts of the thesis in the body paragraphs, then the student has not been successful in proving the thesis; and the student will surely lose the attention of the reader.

Figure 44 below provides a sample of an ambiguous thesis. Let’s read.

Figure 44: Example of an Ambiguous Thesis

In my paper, I will discuss how Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles to convey his point about direct action and segregation.

What is ambiguous about the above thesis? In other words, what is the ambiguity? A standard dictionary defines the word “ambiguous” as having more than one meaning or causing uncertainty. The same dictionary defines “ambiguity” as an expression or statement that has more than one meaning. The student’s thesis has five parts:

1) What the student will do

2) How Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles

3) How Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles to convey his point

4) How Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles to convey his point about direct action

5) How Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles to convey his point about segregation

Let’s locate the ambiguity in the student’s thesis.

Ambiguity #1: how Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles

Ambiguity #2: his point about direct action and segregation

Ambiguity #3: word sequence, cause-and-effect (i.e., direct action and segregation)

Before revising for ambiguity, let’s read the first paragraph of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” under Figure 45.

Figure 45: Excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

 Letter from Birmingham Jail

April 16, 1963


While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”  Seldom do I pause to answer criticisms of my work and ideas.  If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.  But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

 Ambiguity #1: How Martin Luther King, Jr. uses ten composition principles

After this paragraph King discusses his reasons for being in Birmingham and he answers the criticisms of the clergymen throughout the rest of the letter, providing for the reader his interpretation of just and unjust laws, segregation, and the purpose of the direct action nonviolence program.

However, nowhere in this first paragraph of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” does King discuss applying ten composition principles (i.e., description, narration, example, division or analysis, classification, process analysis, comparison and contrast, definition, cause-and-effect analysis, and argument and persuasion) as a method he will use to convey any point he makes; nor does he use composition principles within any other part of the letter. What is King’s thesis? Does King have a thesis? In other words, does King have to prove this statement: Seldom do I pause to answer criticisms of my work and ideas? What in King’s statement is there to prove?

There is nothing. King’s statement falls under the category of purpose. The word “purpose” means to set something as a goal (something that somebody wants to achieve). King outlines his purpose for writing the letter and then provides supporting information, data, and evidence. He develops topic sentences, which he uses to support his purpose, not necessarily a thesis. Observe the differences in the following definitions before moving forward:

Thesis: essay subject; unproved statement

Purpose: set something as a goal

Goal: something that somebody wants to achieve

Unproved: not proved true; not established as true or factual

Prove: establish the truth of something by providing evidence or argument

These definitions provide necessary information to help us understand the tasks that follow.

Observe the difference between each thesis. The first part of the sample is a question we use to invoke an answer. The answer to the question in italics represents the type of statement most students typically construct as a thesis.

Statement #1: Purpose

What is King’s purpose for writing? King’s purpose for writing is to answer criticisms of his work and ideas.

Is this a goal? Is this something that King wants to achieve or hopes he will achieve by the end of the letter?

Is this a thesis? Is this something that isn’t established as true or factual? Do we need to establish as true or factual anything in statement #1?

Statement #2: Thesis

What is King’s thesis? King’s thesis is he pauses to answer criticisms of his work and ideas. King’s thesis may be to answer criticisms of his work and ideas.

Do we need to prove any aspect of this thesis? Yes, there is an aspect of the student’s thesis that we need to prove, but this aspect relates only to King’s process not to the student’s thesis. The process King undergoes represents the act of proving that he is not who the clergymen assume he is.

In other words, the clergymen criticize King by writing that King’s actions are untimely and unwise.  King counters that his actions are not untimely and unwise as he considers the fact that he has been invited to Birmingham, he has organizational ties in Birmingham, and he is in the city because injustice prevails in Birmingham.

Therefore, which of the two statements represents a more accurate depiction of King’s statement? We can deduce with certainty that Statement #1 outlines what King clearly writes; the statement is verifiable. In other words, what the student writes the reader can find in King’s letter. Therefore, since King is not ambiguous, your thesis shouldn’t be ambiguous. Do what the author does. If the author writes that he or she will use ten composition principles to convey his or her point about direct action and segregation, then do what the author does. Remember also that the author’s purpose for writing something doesn’t necessarily translate as the author’s thesis.

Ambiguity #2: His point about direct action and segregation

One word can affect the direction of the sentence. Within the context of the student’s thesis, the word “point” could mean three different things:

Point #1: King’s point about direct action and segregation as one, inseparable entity

Point #2: King’s point about direct action and segregation as separate, individual entities

Point #3: Will you only include one point in your discussion of King’s purpose for writing or does “point” implicitly mean “points”?

Ambiguity #3: Word sequence, cause-and-effect (i.e., direct action and segregation)

The order of things, called sequence, is important to the author. It should be important to you as the writer. When you keep ideas and the author’s points in the order in which the author has presented them, you preserve the intent of the author. In addition, the reader needs to know the correct order of the ideas you express because your ideas within your paper are a summary of the ideas the author expresses.

Therefore, you must be accurate. In other words, does “direct action” come before “segregation”? In King’s letter, “segregation” is a cause and “direct action” is the response to segregation. It is the effect; so both of these words require revision to preserve the same logic of the author’s text. Let’s rewrite the thesis without the ambiguities.

Figure 46: Sample of Revised Thesis without Ambiguity

In my paper, I will discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I will apply ten composition principles in order to illustrate the points he makes about segregation and direct action as separate but connected entities.

 Thesis Checklist:

Is this thesis attainable? In other words, is the thesis ambitious? Can we support and analyze the thesis within the five-page paper the professor has instructed us to write?

Is this thesis measurable? Does this thesis have boundaries, or limits? In other words, is the thesis too general? Does it require revision for preciseness? 

Is this thesis clear from ambiguity? Is there any aspect of this thesis that suggests any uncertainty or double meaning?

Is the above revised thesis a thesis? By today’s standards, the revised thesis constitutes as a thesis, a statement that has not been proven, for which the student will provide topic sentences, supporting evidence, and analysis in order to prove the ideas invoked from the statement (the thesis).

However, according to the definition of the word for “thesis,” the revised thesis represents a plan, a method for achieving an objective, an intention, and an outline for how the student will construct the body of the essay. In essence, it represents both a statement the student can use to prove and validate ideas and it also represents the student’s “purpose” for writing.

Click here for “The Author’s Ideas (Ambiguous).”

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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