Propositional/Appositional Essays

Of the thousands of articles and books I've read in the last twenty years on the subject of teaching writing, there's little doubt that the most influential piece is W. Ross Winterowd's "Rediscovering the Essay" in the Journal of Advanced Composition (1988). Reading Winterowd's essay provided me with a language for describing texts I was frequently reading but had no idea how to categorize. These were also texts I wanted my students to learn how to produce. I sensed that Winterowd's definitions might help students understand how to distinguish between tasks demanding a clear, focused communication of explicit conclusions and those topics that would benefit from a writer exploring divergent ideas without imposing a premature, thesis-driven closure.

Winterowd asserts that the essay is and should remain the "central genre in composition instruction." The problem has been that the essay has been classified into two vague, ill-defined categories: the informal (identified by its personal, anecdotal style) and the formal (a less personal, more argumentative style). In his JAC article, Winterowd suggests a new set of terms for analyzing and classifying two essay types: the "propositional" and "appositional." Winterowd is not advocating the superiority of one essay model over the other. The issue is ensuring that students have opportunities to work with both writing/thinking processes.

The Propositional Essay

  • These structured essays will typically have a precisely worded, carefully defined thesis. With its emphasis on a coherent, hierarchical structure, there is minimal allowance for detours, tangents, irregularities in tone or style. All elements in the essay are part of a rational hierarchy, each piece of evidence subordinate to the text's overriding purpose.
  • Ambiguities, reservations, hesitations, unsupported hunches are to be excluded. The emphasis is on the communication of logical, well-supported conclusions.
  • The recurrent structure for propositional essays "is a branching tree diagram or organizational chart with the topic . . . or macroproposition at the top."
  • An argument unfolds by following a syllogistic progression, "the form of a perfectly conducted argument, advancing step by step" (Kenneth Burke).
  • The goal is the explicit, clear, unambiguous delivery of information and insights.

Prevalent models or examples of the propositional essay would include five-paragraph themes, research reports, the traditional argumentative essay, and most articles in academic journals.

The Appositional Essay

  • A thesis, if one exists, is often implied, not stated directly; it is left to the reader to derive or create a "macroproposition."
  • A primary function of the essay is the exploration of a topic by a combination of means appropriate to the topic; the essayist might juxtapose anecdotes, metaphors, expository passages, narratives, memories; the organic arrangement of these different elements determines the direction and evolution of the essay.
  • An appositional organization is flexible; these essays typically offer a series of stories or meditations on related subjects, inviting the reader to construct the connections among the essay's different segments.
  • These essays often begin with anecdotes and stories, emphasizing specific, thought-provoking illustrations.
  • The form "is that of a galaxy, with dense clusters of bright stars related as subsystems within the whole."
  • The reader is called upon to fill in "gaps" in the text; the reader must be "actively involved in constructing, not merely recovering, meaning."
  • These texts often resemble a "prose lyric," moving forward by means of "anecdotal progression."

Essayists who provide frequent examples of appositional writing include Joan Didion ("Los Angeles Notebook"), Loren Eiseley (The Unexpected Universe, The Immense Journey), Lewis Thomas (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony), Gretel Ehrlich, James Thurber, E. B. White, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and the first master of the appositional essay: Michel Montaigne.

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E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.