Shmoop Writing Guide

The 17 Essay Terms You Need to Know

The 17 Essay Terms You Need to Know


In your essay assignments and in your essay feedback, your English teacher is likely to use a bunch of jargon that doesn’t quite ring a bell. You know how you can understand about half of what your mechanic tells you? Yeah, it's kind of like that, only without the grease-stained jumpsuits (we hope).

We here at Shmoop are going to break it down for you. Here are 17 terms you're likely to encounter in an English class. See something on your assignment you don't understand? Consult this beautiful, utterly comprehensive glossary.

1 Essay: This one seems obvious, but we're often surprised by the weird gobs of language the wayward student will try to pass off as an "essay." An essay can be a lot of different things, but in an academic context, it is something pretty specific. An academic essay is at least 1,000-1,500 words. It makes a point about an academic subject, maybe explaining a new finding in the sciences or providing commentary about literature or politics. It supports that point with meaty, fully developed paragraphs of about 100-200 words. It is made up of facts, often research, to support the main point. It is usually not a story or a personal narrative, but it can include personal experiences or observations as evidence. Your diatribe about that jerk who sideswiped you while you were bicycling to school yesterday? Might be a good read, but probably not an essay.

2 Grabber: Some teachers are into these; some think they're cheesy. A grabber is something at the very beginning of the essay that grabs the reader's attention and makes them want to keep reading. Sometimes this feat is accomplished with an awesome quote relevant to the topic, sometimes a mind-bending fact or statistic, sometimes just a really bold statement. “The sun is green.” Pretty bold. Gold luck building your argument.

3 Introduction: An introduction is the first paragraph of an essay. It might begin with a grabber, and it often ends with the thesis. Its job is to get the reader's attention and then provide the background information the reader needs in order to understand the thesis. It helps readers get comfortable with the topic, easing them into the essay rather than dropping them right into it. It is the Vaseline of paragraphs. An intro is usually at least 80-100 words. It shouldn't be too long though—it merely sets up the thesis, while most of the essay is about proving the thesis.

4 Topic: It is important to understand how this is different from a thesis. A topic is the subject of your essay—The Great Gatsby, World War Two, George Bush's foreign policy, whatever. An essay, however, always says something about a topic. (Which is where the thesis comes in.) Writers often go wrong by describing a topic rather than making a point about it.

5 Thesis Statement: A thesis is usually 1-2 sentences at the end of the introduction. It states the main point of the entire essay. It makes a clear, arguable assertion and previews the support for that assertion that will be developed in the following paragraphs. It states: "Here is my point, and here is how I'll prove it." Everything that comes after the thesis should work to support the thesis. It’s good to have a support system. If the thesis ever gets dumped, it can cry on a few shoulders.

6 Body Paragraph: In a conventional academic essay there are no fewer than three body paragraphs. Each is at least 150-250 words long, and they come after the intro and thesis. A body paragraph makes one point in support of the thesis and develops it with reasoning, quotes, and evidence. These paragraphs make up the "body" of the essay, usually about three-fifths of its length. It's where the essay convinces the reader that the thesis is valid. An essay might have a nice body, but will it hold it against you?

7 Topic Sentence: This term refers to the sentences at the beginning of the body paragraphs, not at the beginning of the introduction or conclusion paragraphs. Topic sentences make a point in support of the thesis and preview the content of the body paragraph. Think of a topic sentence as a mini-thesis for each body paragraph. Smaller and cuter than the original.

8 Evidence/Support: These two terms refer to facts, data, observations, reasoning—anything an essay uses to show that the thesis is true. This stuff comes in the body paragraphs.