Monday, 25 July 2011

Main Point vs Purpose

MODULE ONE (1): Gathering & Processing Information
The purpose of this post is to clear up a mistake that is often made on the exam. The main point of this post is that there is a marked difference between the main point (main idea) of a piece and the purpose for writing a piece and you will be tested on whether you can make that distinction. The main point can never be the same as the purpose and vice-versa. Hence, your responses should reflect that you recognize this fact.

Main Point/Idea
The main point of a piece is the same as the topic/thesis statement. It refers to those words/sentences that capture the essence of the overall piece of writing. The thesis/topic statement is generally found in the first or last sentences of the introductory paragraph.However, sometimes it is not stated and has to be inferred from the passage A good thesis statement does two (2) things. First, it tells about an essay's topic. Second, it presents the writer's attitude, opinion, idea or point about that topic. Let us look at some examples:

Example One: 'From King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, 1998'
When the Atlantic slave trade began decimating the Kongo, that nation was under the reign of a ManiKongo named Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, who had gained the throne in 1506 and ruled as Affonso I for nearly forty years. Affonso's life spanned a crucial period. When he was born, no one in the kingdom knew that  Europeans existed. When he died, his entire realm was threatened by the slave-selling fever they had caused. He was a man of tragic self awareness, and he left his mark. Some three hundred years later, a missionary said, "A native of the Kongo knows the name of three kings: that of the present, that of his predecessor , and that of Affonso."
Ask yourself:
a. Who/what do you think the paragraph is about? (Topic)
b. What is the writer's attitude, opinion etc about it?

Discussion: Even though this is an excerpt of the piece, already you should be able to tell that that the main point/idea of the piece is that 'When the Atlantic slave trade began decimating the Kongo, that nation was under the reign of a ManiKongo named Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, who had gained the throne in 1506 and ruled as Affonso I for nearly forty years.' Let us try another one:

Example Two: 'Adapted from Daniel Pendick, Courtesy of  WNET.ORG (
             Though it's true that tsunamis are ocean waves, calling them by the same name as the ordinary wind-driven variety is a bit like referring to firecrackers and atomic warheads both as "explosives." Triggered by volcanic eruptions, landslides, earthquakes, and even impacts by asteroids or comets, a tsunami represents a vast volume of seawater in motion -- the source of its destructive power.
            On the open ocean, tsunami waves approach speeds of 500 mph, almost fast enough to keep pace with a jetliner. But gazing out the window of a 747, you wouldn't be able to pick it out from the wind-driven swells. In deep water, the waves spread out and hunch down, with hundreds of miles between crests that may be just a few feet high. A passenger on a passing ship would scarcely detect their passing. But in fact the tsunami crest is just the very tip of a vast mass of water in motion, as a tsunami can travel great distances with little loss of energy. The 1960 earthquake off the coast of Chile generated a tsunami that had enough force to kill 150 people in Japan after a journey of 22 hours and 10,000 miles.
            As the waves in the tsunami reach shore, they slow down due to the shallowing sea floor, and the loss in speed is often accompanied by a dramatic increase in wave height. Tsunamis also flood in suddenly without warning. Tsunami waves usually don't curve over and break, like Hawaiian surf waves. Survivors of tsunami attacks describe them as dark "walls" of water. Impelled by the mass of water behind them, the waves bulldoze onto the shore and inundate the coast, snapping trees like twigs, toppling stone walls and lighthouses, and smashing houses and buildings into kindling. 
            The contours of the seafloor and coastline have a profound influence on the height of the waves -- sometimes with surprising and dangerous results. During the 1993 tsunami attack on Okushiri, Japan, the wave "runup" on the coast averaged about 15 to 20 meters (50 - 65 feet). But in one particular spot, the waves pushed into a V-shaped valley open to the sea, concentrating the water in a tighter and tighter space. In the end, the water ran up to 32 meters (90 feet) above sea level, about the height of an 8-story office building.

Discussion: In this example taken from the May 2011 CAPE Paper 2, the main point may actually be located in the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. Therefore, the main point is that 'a tsunami represents a vast volume of seawater in motion - the source of its destructive power.'

The purpose of a piece of writing is generally evidenced by the type of discourse used (See post on Evaluating types of discourse. )The second example, speaking about tsunamis) evidences mixed discourse types. It utilizes elements of exposition, description and narrative. Readers receive indepth information about tsunami wave formation as well as true to life accounts or anecdotes of tsunami attack. This combination of discourse types aids the writer's purpose which is to alert or educate readers about the destructive power of tsunamis. 
Further Reading on 'Purpose': Chapter 10, Writing in English -Hazel Simmonds-McDonald et al

Mistakes to Avoid on  Examinations
Avoid stating the main point and the purpose as the same thing. They may be similar in content but how you state it in your responses should be clearly different:
The main point is that....
The purpose is to....
NOT the main point and the purpose is to...
You will score 0 marks if you respond in this way. The examiner will not be able to tell whether or not you recognize the difference between the two concepts.