Contestable Thesis Statement

Definition: Thesis statement

A thesis statement is a statement of position.

In university writing, it is typically a sentence or two which establishes your argument and forecasts the main points your paper will argue. It is the backbone of your paper, because everything that follows should support this central argument. A thesis has to be arguable/contestable and cannot be a statement of fact.

For example:

Not the basis for a thesis:

  • The sky is blue.
  • Harry Potter is a book, written by J.K. Rowling.
  • Terry Fox is an important figure in Canadian history.

Possible basis for a thesis:

  • The sky is blue, because of complex light and chemical interactions in the upper atmosphere.
  • Harry Potter is a book that shaped a generation’s understanding of prejudice, because of the relationships between muggles and the wizarding world.
  • Terry Fox has had a greater impact on medical research than any other Canadian.

Tips on how to check whether your thesis is contestable:

Your thesis is probably not contestable if:

  • It is a statement of fact
  • It is completely neutral
  • It only answers the question “what?”

Your thesis is probably contestable if:

  • It represents a position or opinion
  • It can be argued against
  • It answers the question “why?” and/or “so what?”

Why the thesis statement is important

Your thesis statement is where your reader can look to find out what a paper is about, and why and how the topic will be addressed. It is where the topic, or more specifically the argument, is narrowed and focused. In addition, theses are often tied to the “roadmap” of the paper. That is, an explanation of the subarguments and structure that you will use to prove your overall thesis.

Using your thesis statement to structure your paper

The first goal of a thesis statement is to establish a position, the second is to explain how that position will be argued. That means explaining subarguments that will support the overall position of your paper. These subarguments will then become sections of your paper.

For example:

Thesis statement:

Terry Fox has had a greater impact on medical research than any other Canadian, because x, y, and z.

Structure:

  • Introduction and thesis statement
    • Section x
    • Section y
    • Section z
  • Conclusion

Forming your thesis statement

There are many different ways to structure a thesis statement, however, the following are some basic tools and diagrams to help in developing your framework for your thesis.

In general, a thesis statement has three basic components, and can be visualized like this:

The following questions can be used to develop each component:

Context (or topic)

What are you talking about? What is the issue you are discussing?

Position (or argument)

What is your position on your topic? What do you think?

For a comparison or synthesis paper, a Venn diagram can help determine the relationship between the two things being compared. Once a relationship is determined, it can become the position of your thesis, because you are arguing that this relationship exists on the basis of x, y and z.

Reasoning (your x, y, and z)

Why should your reader believe you? What supports your position and proves your argument?

? ? ? ? ?

What is a thesis?

? ? ? ? ?

Attributes of a Good Thesis///Thesis Equation///Thesis Brainstorming///

Five Tests///Proficient vs. Advanced///Is it a Thesis?///Thesis Resources

What is a thesis?

A thesis statement declares what you believe and what you intend to prove. A good thesis statement makes the difference between a thoughtful research project and a simple retelling of facts.

A good tentative thesis will help you focus your search for information. But don't rush! You must do a lot of background reading before you know enough about a subject to identify key or essential questions. You may not know how you stand on an issue until you have examined the evidence. You will likely begin your research with a working, preliminary or tentative thesis which you will continue to refine until you are certain of where the evidence leads.

The thesis statement is typically located at the end of your opening paragraph. (The opening paragraph serves to set the context for the thesis.)

Remember, your reader will be looking for your thesis. Make it clear, strong, and easy to find.


Attributes of a good thesis:

  • It should be contestable, proposing an arguable point with which people could reasonably disagree. A strong thesis is provocative; it takes a stand and justifies the discussion you will present.
  • It tackles a subject that could be adequately covered in the format of the project assigned.
  • It is specific and focused. A strong thesis proves a point without discussing “everything about …” Instead of music, think "American jazz in the 1930s" and your argument about it.
  • It clearly asserts your own conclusion based on evidence. Note: Be flexible. The evidence may lead you to a conclusion you didn't think you'd reach. It is perfectly okay to change your thesis!
  • It provides the reader with a map to guide him/her through your work.
  • It anticipates and refutes the counter-arguments
  • It avoids vague language (like "it seems").
  • It avoids the first person. ("I believe," "In my opinion")
  • It should pass the So what? or Who cares? test (Would your most honest friend ask why he should care or respond with "but everyone knows that"?) For instance, "people should avoid driving under the influence of alcohol," would be unlikely to evoke any opposition.

Simple equations for a thesis might look something like this:

Specific topic + Attitude/Angle/Argument = Thesis

What you plan to argue + How you plan to argue it = Thesis


How do you know if you've got a solid tentative thesis? 

Try these five tests:

  • Does the thesis  inspire a reasonable reader to ask, "How?" or Why?"
  • Would a reasonable reader NOT respond with "Duh!" or "So what?" or "Gee, no kidding!" or "Who cares?"
  • Does the thesis  avoid general phrasing and/or sweeping words such as "all" or "none" or "every"?
  • Does the thesis lead the reader toward the topic sentences (the subtopics needed to prove the thesis)?
  • Can the thesis be adequately developed in the required length of the paper or project?

If you cannot answer "YES" to these questions, what changes must you make in order for your thesis to pass these tests?

Examine these sample thesis statements.

Visit our thesis generator for more advice.


Proficient vs. Advanced

Proficient: Inspires the reasonable reader to ask “How?” or “Why?”

Advanced: Inspires the reasonable reader to ask “How?” or “Why?” and to exclaim “Wow!” This thesis engages the student in challenging or provocative research and displays a level of thought that breaks new ground.

Remember: Reading and coaching can significantly improve the tentative thesis.


Thesis Brainstorming

As you read look for:

  • Interesting contrasts or comparisons or patterns emerging in the information
  • Is there something about the topic that surprises you?
  • Do you encounter ideas that make you wonder why?
  • Does something an "expert" says make you respond, "no way! That can be right!" or "Yes, absolutely. I agree!"

Example of brainstorming a thesis:

Select a topic: television violence and children

Ask an interesting question: What are the effects of television violence on children?

Revise the question into a thesis: Violence on television increases aggressive behavior in preschool children.

Remember this argument is your “preliminary” or “working” thesis. As you read you may discover evidence that may affect your stance. It is okay to revise your thesis!

For more ideas on brainstorming visit Purdue's Thought Starters

Create a list of sample questions to guide your research:

  • How many hours of television does the average young child watch per week?
  • How do we identify a "violent" program?
  • Which types of programs are most violent?
  • Are there scientific research studies that have observed children before and after watching violent programs?
  • Are there experts you might contact?
  • Which major groups are involved in investigating this question?

For basic advice on almost any writing issue as you work on this major project, visit the Purdue OWL Handouts and our own Research Project Guide and our MLA Stylesheet.

For advice on selecting your sources, visit Why Should I Take this Author Seriously?


Now, let's play: Is it a thesis?

I would like to become a chef when I finish school

Although both chefs and cooks can prepare fine meals, chefs differ from cooks in education, professional commitment, and artistry.


I enjoy white water rafting.

A first water rafting experience can challenge the body and spirit and transform an adolescent into an adult


Men are chauvinists.

Our American family structure encourages men to repress their true feelings, leaving them open to physical, psychological, and relationship difficulties.


Steroid abuse

Steroids, even those legally available, are addictive and should be banned from sports.


Hip hop is the best thing that has happened to music in twenty years

Though many people dismiss hip hop as offensive, hip hop music offers urban youth an important opportunity for artistic expression, and allows them to articulate the poetry of the street.


Many people object to today's violent horror movies.

Despite their high-tech special effects, today's graphically violent horror movies do not convey the creative use of cinematography or the emotional impact that we saw in the classic horror films of the 1940s and 50s.

Other examples from St. Cloud University


Your turn: Now let’s work together to develop thesis statements around areas in which we already have some background knowledge.

Here’s a few ideas: high school sports, school uniforms, high stakes testing, steroid abuse, divorce, school dances, music censorship

Let's start by brainstorming keywords and concepts.


Thesis Resources on the Web

For more information on developing a thesis, visit:

Purdue OWL's Thesis or Question

Harvard University's Developing a Thesis

Indiana University's How to Write a Thesis

Northwestern University Writing Center's Developing a Thesis

University of Wisconsin's Developing a Thesis Statement

Dartmouth's Developing a Thesis

Hunter College's Developing a Thesis

Hamilton College's Introductions and Thesis Statements

Capital Community College's The Thesis Statement

Developing a Thesis Statement http://english.ttu.edu/uwc/thesis.html

Using Thesis Statements (U. Toronto) http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/thesis.html

Write Place: Thesis Statement http://english.ttu.edu/uwc/thesis.html

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