Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Found on Pinterest...seriously
The five-paragraph essay was treated as the cornerstone of English classes when I was growing up: it was drummed into me when I was a high school student, and it was a necessity in the English Department at my first teaching job. Despite the fact that a topic does not always fall into three points, enforcing the structure of five paragraphs was considered an ideal way to teach essay writing.

The formal parts of the five-paragraph can be found all over, and of course on Wikipedia:
  • Introduction: Introducing a topic. An important part of this is the three-pronged thesis.
  • Body paragraph 1: Explaining the first part of the three-pronged thesis
  • Body paragraph 2: Explaining the second part of the three-pronged thesis
  • Body paragraph 3: Explaining the third part of the three-pronged thesis
  • Conclusion: Summing up points and restating thesis
Wikipedia informs me that it is also called (I don't recall ever seeing these terms before today) the "hamburger essay" [see illustration above], "one three one," and the "three-tier essay."

Looking for the origin of the five-paragraph format takes us back in time past the nuns who taught me, past John Dewey, past McGuffey Readers; we have to look back to the first century CE, to a work that was mistakenly attributed to Cicero.

Rhetorica ad Herennium ["Rehetoric: for Herennius"] was a very popular early book on rhetoric. Because Cicero wrote a well-known book on rhetoric (called De inventione ["Concerning the art of discovery"], he was given credit (right up through the Renaissance) for writing this more-complete book. In it, the author offers a format for an argument that may sound familiar to you:
  • Exordium — Exhorting your reader to listen to your topic
  • Narratio — Narrating/explaining what your topic is
  • Divisio — Dividing your topic into main points
  • Confirmatio — Confirming your points with arguments (usually three)
  • Refutatio — Offering opposing arguments & refuting them
  • Conclusio — Concluding your essay with a summary of your arguments
The Refutatio is often a part of a larger essay. The five-paragraph essay can be boiled down to
  • Paragraph 1: Narratio + Divisio
  • Paragraph 2-4: Confirmatio
  • Paragraph 5: Conclusio
...and I spent my teenage years hoping never to be constrained in that way again!

You can read the Rhetorica ad Herennium here.

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