Unity is an essential quality in a well-written essay. The principle of unity requires that every element in a piece of writing—whether a paragraph or an essay—be related to the main idea. Sentences that stray from the subject, even though they might be related to it or provide additional information, can weaken an otherwise strong piece of writing. Note how the italicized segments in the following paragraphs undermine its unity and divert our attention from its main idea:
When I was growing up, one of the places I enjoyed most was the cherry tree in the backyard. Behind the yard was an alley and then more houses. Every summer when the cherries began to ripen, I used to spend hours high up in the tree, picking and eating the sweet, sun-warmed cherries. My mother always worried about my falling out of the tree, but I never did. But I had some competition for the cherries—flocks of birds that enjoyed them as much as I did and would perch all over the tree, devouring the fruit whenever I wasn’t there. I used to wonder why the grown-ups never ate any of the cherries—my father loved all kinds of fruit—but actually, when the birds and I had finished, there weren’t many left.
--Betty Burns, student
When the italicized sentences are eliminated, the paragraph is unified and reads smoothly.
Now consider another paragraph, this one from an essay about family photographs and how they allow the author to learn about her past and to stay connected with her family in the present:
Photographs have taken me to places I have never been and have shown me people alive before I was born. I can visit my grandmother’s childhood home in Vienna, Austria, and walk down the high-ceilinged, iron staircase by looking through the small, white album my grandma treasures. I also know of the tomboy she once was, wearing lederhosen instead of the dirndls worn by her friends. And I have seen her as a beautiful young woman who traveled with the Red Cross during the war, uncertain of her future. The photograph that rests in a red leather frame on my grandma’s nightstand has allowed me to meet the man she would later marry. He died before I was born. I have been told that I would have loved his calm manner, and I can see for myself his gentle smile and tranquil expression.
--Carrie White, student
Did you notice that the first sentence gives focus and direction to the paragraph and that all of the subsequent sentences are directly related to it?
A well-written essay should be unified both within and between paragraphs; that is, everything in it should be related to its thesis, the main idea of the essay. The first requirement is that the thesis itself be clear, either through a direct statement, called the thesis statement, or by implication. The second requirement is that there be no digressions, no discussion or information that is not shown to be logically related to the thesis. A unified essay stays within the limits of its thesis.
Here, for example, is a short essay by Stuart Chase about the dangers of making generalizations. As you read, notice how carefully Chase sticks to the point.
Over-Generalizing One swallow does not make a summer, nor can two or three cases often support a dependable generalization. Yet all of us, including the most polished eggheads, are constantly falling into this mental peopletrap. It is the most common, probably the most seductive, and potentially the most dangerous, of all the fallacies.
You drive through a town and see a drunken man on the sidewalk. A few blocks further on you see another. You turn to your companion: “Nothing but drunks in this town!” Soon you are out of the country, bowling along at fifty. A car passes you as if you were parked. On a curve a second whizzes by. Your companion turns to you: “All the drivers in this state are crazy!” Two thumping generalizations, each built on two cases. If we stop to think, we usually recognize the exaggeration and the unfairness of such generalizations. Trouble comes when we do not stop to think—or when we build them on a prejudice.
This kind of reasoning has been around for a long time. Aristotle was aware of its dangers and called it “reasoning by example,” meaning too few examples. What it boils down to is failing to count your swallows before announcing that summer is here. Driving from my home to New Haven the other day, a distance of about forty miles, I caught myself saying: “Every time I look around I see a new ranch-type house going up.” So on the return trip I counted them; there were exactly five under construction. And how many times had I “looked around”? I suppose I had glanced to right and left—as one must at side roads and so forth in driving—several hundred times.
In this fallacy we do not make the error of neglecting facts altogether and rushing immediately to the level of opinion. We start at the fact level properly enough, but we do not stay there. A case of two and up we go to a rousing over-simplification about drunks, speeders, ranch-style houses—or, more seriously, about foreigners, African Americans, labor leaders, teen-agers.
Why do we over-generalize so often and sometimes so disastrously? One reason is that the human mind is a generalizing machine. We would not be people without this power. The old academic crack: “All generalizations are false, including this one,” is only a play on words. We must generalize to communicate and to live. But we should beware of beating the gun; of not waiting until enough facts are in to say something useful. Meanwhile it is a plain waste of time to listen to arguments based on a few handpicked examples.
Everything in the essay relates to Chase’s thesis statement, which is included in the essay’s first sentence: “…nor can two or three cases often support a dependable generalization.” Paragraphs 2 and 3 document the thesis with examples; paragraph 4 explains how overgenralizing occurs; paragraph 5 analyzes why people overgeneralize; and, for a conclusion, Chase restates his thesis in different words. An essay may be longer, more complex, and more wide-ranging than this one, but to be effective it must also avoid digression and remain close to the author’s main idea.
A good way to check that your essay is indeed unified is to underline your thesis and then to explain to yourself how each paragraph in your essay is related to the thesis. If you find a paragraph that does not appear to be logically connected, you can revise it so that the relationship is clear. Similarly, it is useful to make sure that each sentence in a paragraph is related to the topic sentence.
Source: The previous essay appears as a chapter in Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition, by Alfred Rosa and Paul Escholz.
Unity II: Paragraph Unity
“Consider the postage stamp," advised humorist Josh Billings. "Its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.”
The same might be said about an effective paragraph. Unity is the quality of sticking to one idea from start to finish, with every sentence contributing to the central purpose and main idea of that paragraph.
As we've seen, a topic sentence contains the main idea upon which a paragraph is developed. In a unified paragraph, all of the supporting sentences serve to illustrate, clarify, and/or explain the main idea set forth in the topic sentence.
The best way to demonstrate the importance of unity is to show how the intrusion of irrelevant information can disrupt our understanding of a paragraph. The original version of the following passage, taken from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday, vividly illustrates how people in the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico prepare for the Feast of San Diego. We've upset the unity of Momaday's paragraph by adding one sentence that's not directly connected to his main idea. See if you can spot that sentence.
The activity in the pueblo reached a peak on the day before the Feast of San Diego, November twelfth. It was on that day, an especially brilliant day in which the winter held off and the sun shone like a flare, that Jemez became one of the fabulous cities of the world. In the preceding days the women had plastered the houses, many of them, and they were clean and beautiful like bone in the high light; the strings of chilies at the vigas had darkened a little and taken on a deeper, softer sheen; ears of colored corn were strung at the doors, and fresh cedar boughs were laid about, setting a whole, wild fragrance on the air. The women were baking bread in the outdoor ovens. Here and there men and women were at the woodpiles, chopping, taking up loads of firewood for their kitchens, for the coming feast. Year round, the artisans of Jemez, known internationally for their crafts, would create beautiful basketry, embroidery, woven cloths, exquisite stone sculpture, moccasins, and jewelry. Even the children were at work: the little boys looked after the stock, and the little girls carried babies about. There were gleaming antlers on the rooftops, and smoke arose from all the chimneys.
The third-to-last sentence ("Year round, the artisans of Jemez . . .") is our distracting addition to Momaday's passage. The added sentence upsets the unity of the paragraph by offering information that is not directly relevant to the main idea (as stated in the first sentence) or to any of the other sentences in the paragraph. Whereas Momaday focuses specifically on activities taking place "the day before the Feast of San Diego," the intrusive sentence refers to work that's done "year round."
By moving irrelevant information to a new paragraph--or by omitting that information altogether--we can improve the unity of our paragraphs when we come to revise them.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: Paragraph Unity
The following paragraph, which has also been adapted from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday, describes the very end of the busy day before the Feast of San Diego. Again, we have added a sentence that's not directly connected to the author's main idea. See if you can identify this sentence, which upsets the unity of the paragraph, and then compare your response with the answer at the bottom of the page.
Later in the dusky streets I walked among the Navajo camps, past the doorways of the town, from which came the good smells of cooking, the festive sounds of music, laughter, and talk. The campfires rippled in the crisp wind that arose with evening and set a soft yellow glow on the ground, low on the adobe walls. A natural building material used for several thousand years, adobe is composed of sand and straw, which is shaped into bricks on wooden frames and dried in the sun. Mutton sizzled and smoked above the fires; fat dripped into the flames; there were great black pots of strong coffee and buckets full of fried bread; dogs crouched on the rim of the light, the many circles of light; and old men sat hunched in their blankets on the ground, in the cold shadows, smoking. . . . Long into the night the fires cast a glare over the town, and I could hear the singing, until it seemed that one by one the voices fell away, and one remained, and then there was none. On the very edge of sleep I heard coyotes in the hills.
Evaluating Paragraph Unity
Each of the following paragraphs contains sentences that are irrelevant or unnecessary to the main point of the paragraph. The sentences do not support the opening point, and so the paragraphs are not unified. In the interest of paragraph unity, such sentences must be omitted.
Cross out the irrelevant sentences and put the numbers of those in the spaces provided. The number of spaces will tell you the number of irrelevant sentences in each paragraph.
1. How to Prevent Cheating (1) Teachers should take steps to prevent students from cheating on exams. (2) To begin with, teachers should stop reusing old tests. (3) Even a test that has been used once is soon known on the student grapevine. (4) Students will check with their friends to find out, for example, what was on Dr. Thompson's biology final last term. (5) They may even manage to turn up a copy of the test itself, "accidentally" not turned in by a former student of Dr. Thompson's. (6) Teachers should also take some common sense precautions at test time. (7) They should make students separate themselves--by at least one seat—during an exam, and they should watch the class closely. (8) The best place for the teacher to sit is in the rear of the room, so that a student is never sure if the teacher is looking at him or her. (9) Last of all, teachers must make it clear to students that there will be stiff penalties for cheating. (10) One of the problems with our school systems is a lack of discipline. (11) Teachers never used to give in to students' demands or put up with bad behavior, as they so today. (12) Anyone caught cheating should immediately receive a zero for the exam. (13) A person even suspected of cheating should be forced to take an alternative exam in the teacher's office. (14) Because cheating is unfair to honest students, it should not be tolerated.
The numbers of the irrelevant sentences are _____________________________
2. A Dangerous Cook (1) When my friend Tom sets to work in the kitchen, disaster often results. (2) Once he tried to make toasted cheese sandwiches for us by putting slices of cheese in the toaster along with the bread; he ruined the toaster. (3) Unfortunately, the toaster was a fairly new one that I had just bought for him three weeks before, on his birthday. (4) On another occasion, he had cut up some fresh beans and put them in a pot to steam. (5) I was really looking forward to the beans, for I eat nothing but canned vegetables in my dormitory. (6) I, frankly, am not much of a cook either. (7) The water in the Teflon pan steamed away while Tom was on the telephone, and both the beans and the Teflon coating in the pan were ruined. (8) Finally, another time Tom made spaghetti for us, and the noodles stuck so tightly together that we had to cut off slices with a knife and fork. (9) In addition, The meatballs were burned on the outside but almost raw on the inside. (10) The tomato sauce, on the other hand, turned out well. (11) For some reason, Tom is very good at making meat and vegetables sauces. (12) Because of Tom's kitchen mishaps, I never eat at his place without an Alka-Seltzer in my pocket, or without money in case we have to go out to eat.
The numbers of the irrelevant sentences are _________________________________
3. Why Adults Visit Amusement Parks (1) Adults visit amusement parks for several reasons. (2) For one thing, an amusement park is a place where it is acceptable to "pig-out" on junk food. (3) At the park, everyone is drinking soda and eating popcorn, ice-cream, or hot dogs. (4) No one seems to be on a diet, and so buying all the junk food you can eat is a guilt-free experience. (5) Parks should provide stands where healthier food, such as salads or cold chicken, would be sold. (6) Another reason people visit amusement parks is to prove themselves. (7) They want to visit the park that has the newest, scariest ride in order to say that they went on the Parachute Drop, the seven-story Elevator, the Water Chute, or the Death Slide. (8) Going on a scary ride is a way to feel courageous and adventurous without taking much of a risk. (9)Some rides, however, can be dangerous. (10) Rides that are not properly inspected or maintained have killed people all over the country. (11) A final reason people visit amusement parks is to escape from everyday pressures. (12) When people are poised at the top of a gigantic roller coaster, they are not thinking of bills, work, or personal problems. (13) A scary ride empties the mind of all worries--except making it to the bottom alive. (14) Adults at an amusement park may claim they have come for their children, but they are there for themselves as well.
The numbers of the irrelevant sentences are ______________________________________
4. My Color Television (1) My color television has given me nothing but heartburn. (2) I was able to buy it a little over a year ago because I had my relatives give me money for my birthday instead of clothes that wouldn't fit. (3) My first dose of stomach acid came when I bought the set. (4) I let a salesclerk fool me into buying a discontinued model. (5) I realized this a day later when I saw newspaper advertisements for the set at seventy-five dollars less than I had paid. (6) The set worked so beautifully when I got it home that I would keep it on until stations signed off for the night. (7) Fortunately, I didn't get any channels showing all- night movies, or I would never have gotten to bed. (8) Then I started developing a problem with the set that involved static noise. (9) For some reason, when certain shows switched into a commercial, a loud buzz would sound for a few seconds. (10) Gradually, this sound began to appear during a show, and to get rid of it, I had to click the dial to another channel and click it back. (11) Sometimes this technique would not work, and I had to pick up the set and shake it to remove the buzzing sound. (12) I actually began to build up my arm muscles shaking my set; I could feel the new muscles working whenever I shot a basketball. (13) When neither of these methods removed the static noise, I would sit popping Tums and wait for the sound to go away. (14) Eventually I wound up slamming the set with my hand again, and it stopped working altogether. (15) My trip to the repair shop cost me $62. (16) The set is working well now, but I keep expecting more trouble.
The numbers of the irrelevant sentences are ________________________________
Classroom Activity Using Unity Take a paragraph from a draft of an essay you have been working on and test it for unity. Be prepared to read the paragraph in class and explain why it is unified, or why it is not, and what you need to do to make it unified.
Unity III: Holistic Unity
Classroom Activity Using Unity Mark Wanner, a student, wrote the following paragraphs for an essay using this thesis statement:
IN order to provide a good learning environment in school, the teachers and administrators need to be strong leaders.
Unfortunately, some of the sentences disrupt the unity of the essay. Find these sentences, eliminate them, and reread the essay.
Strong School Leaders
School administrators and teachers must do more than simply supply students with information and a school building. They must also provide students with an atmosphere that allows them to focus on learning within the walls of the school. Whether the walls are brick, steel, or cement, they are only walls, and they do not help to create an appropriate atmosphere. Strong leadership both inside and outside the classroom yields a school in which students are able to excel in their studies., because they know how to conduct themselves in their relationships with their teachers and fellow students.
A recent change in the administration of Eastside High School demonstrated how important strong leadership is to learning. Under the previous administration, parents and students complained that not enough emphasis was placed on studies. Most of the students lived in an impoverished neighborhood that had only one park for several thousand residents. Students were allowed to leave school at any time of the day, and little was done to curb the growing substance abuse problem. “What’s the point of trying to teach algebra to students who are just going to get jobs as part-time sales clerks, anyway?” Vice Principle Iggy Norant said when questioned about his school’s poor academic standards. Mr. Norant was known to students as Twiggy Iggy because of his tall, thin frame. Standardized test scores at the school lagged well behind the state average, and only 16% of the graduates attended college within two years.
Five years ago, the school board hired Mary Pena, former chair of the state educational standards committee, as principle. A cheerleader in college, Ms. Pena got her B.A. in recreation science before getting her masters in education. She immediately emphasized the importance of learning, replacing any faculty members who did not share her high expectations of the students. Among those she fired was Mr. Norant; she also replaced two social studies teachers, one math teacher, four English teachers, and a lab instructor who let students play Gameboy in lab. She also established a code of conduct, which clearly stated the rules all students had to follow. Students were allowed second chances, but those who continued to conduct themselves in a way that interfered with the other students’ ability to learn were dealt with quickly and severely. “The attitude at Eastside has changed so much since Mary Pena arrived,” said math teacher Jeremy Rifkin after Pena’s second year. “Students come to class much more relaxed and ready to learn. I feel like I can teach again.” Test scores at Eastside are now well above state averages, and 68% of the most recent graduating class went straight to college.
--Mark Warner, student
Classroom Activity Using Unity Carefully read the following five-paragraph sequence, paying special attention to how each paragraph relates to the writer’s thesis. Identify the paragraph that disrupts the unity of the sequence, and explain why it does not belong.
How to Build a Fire in a Fireplace
Though “experts” differ as to the best technique to follow when building a fire, one generally accepted method consists of first laying a generous amount of crumpled newspaper on the hearth between the andirons. Kindling wood is then spread generously over this layer of newspaper and one of the thickest logs is placed across the back of the andirons. This should be as close to the back of the fireplace as possible, but not quite touching it. A second log is then placed an inch or so in front of this, and a few additional sticks of kindling are laid across these two. A third log is then placed on top to form a sort of pyramid with air space between all logs so that flames can lick freely up between them.
Roaring fireplace fires are particularly welcome during the winter months, especially after hearty outdoors activities. To avoid any mid-winter tragedies, care should be taken to have a professional inspect and clean the chimney before starting to use the fireplace in the fall. Also, be sure to clean out the fireplace after each use.
A mistake frequently made is building the fire too far forward so that the rear wall of the fireplace does not get properly heated. A heated back wall helps increase the draft and tends to suck smoke and flames rearward with less chance of sparks or smoke spurting out into the room.
Another common mistake often made by the inexperienced fire-tender is to try to build a fire with only one or two logs, instead of using at least three. A single log is difficult to ignite properly, and even two logs do not provide an efficient bed with adequate fuel-burning capacity.
Use of too many logs, on the other hand, is also a common fault and can prove hazardous. Building too big a fire can create more smoke and draft than the chimney can safely handle, increasing the possibility of sparks or smoke being thrown out into the room. For best results the homeowner should start with three medium-size logs as described above, then add additional logs as needed if the fire is to be kept burning.
The five paragraphs on “How to Build a Fire in a Fireplace” are taken from Bernard Gladstone’s book The New York Times Complete Manual of Home Repair.