Point-Proof-Explanation, Part One: Turtles . . . All the Way Down
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
There is one concept that I wind up discussing with my students and clients no matter what other issues they or I think they have at the start of a consultation.
Whether the initial concern is making their argument clear, avoiding excessive quotations or just knowing where to start, I always find myself asking the same question:
Have you ever been taught Point-Proof-Explanation?
The answer is often 'No' or 'Well, I think, but I'm not sure'. Even students who are well versed in the concept aren't typically aware of how central it is to all the writing they will do.
Point-Proof-Explanation (PPE) is the building block of academic writing in the English-speaking Western world.
It is well known in EAL circles that different cultures structure logic and flow in different ways. If you're interested in learning about some of the structural differences found in different cultural writing practices, you can check out the documentary Writing Across Borders.
So what is PPE, and how does it work?
PPE is the logical structure of a paragraph. In the first sentence, we present our argument (the Point). We then follow this with several sentences that show the reader evidence to support our claims (the Proof). Finally, the last sentence of a paragraph reinforces the significance of the Proof, its relation to the Point and why the reader should care (the Explanation).
It looks like this:
Point = the topic sentence or the argument (a mini-thesis)
Proof = discussion (with support from quotes, data, statistics, etc.)
Explanation = So what? Why should anyone care?
Let's consider someone writing a paper on how to choose a pet.
First, we need to make an argument. This is a statement that could be refuted or debated and, therefore, needs Proof to back it up.
Point = Cats are low maintenance.
Now, we need to prove that cats are low maintenance. This will take up the bulk of the paragraph.
Proof = examples of cats being easy to take care of
Cats sleep a lot
Cats don't need a lot of activity
Cats can be fed twice a day
Cats don't need a lot of social time
Cats bathe themselves
Cats use litter boxes; can even be trained to use the toilet
Great! That all seems pretty convincing. Now, what was the purpose of listing all those examples again? We need to restate the Point without being too repetitive (boring!), but it would also be nice to push our analysis further and suggest that our findings on cats have a broader implication than just that they are easy to care for.
Explanation = Cats require very little daily attention and are great pets for people with busy lifestyles.
In the Explanation, we reiterate that cats are low maintenance, but we also use this space to convey what our argument actually means for pet owners.
Now let's smash it all together to make a paragraph:
Cats are low-maintenance pets (Point). Cats need very little activity and sleep most of the day: you will not find yourself having to schedule daily walks or playdates with other cat owners. If you are away from the house for long periods, cats are a great choice of pet, because they can be fed twice a day and prefer to spend most of their time alone anyway. In terms of hygiene, cats bathe themselves and will only need a proper soap-and-water bath if they get into something really disgusting. Unlike dogs, cats do their business in a specific place - the litter box! You only need to clean that out once a day. Some cats can even be trained to use the toilet, which is even less work (Proof). For all these reasons, cats require very little daily attention and are great pets for people with busy lifestyles (Explanation).
Congratulations! We learned about PPE. Cookies for everyone! We've done it!
But wait, there's more . . .
PPE is more versatile and governs more aspects of a paper than just each paragraph. The one above is nice and self-contained. It has one job and says one thing: cats are low maintenance. But what happens to PPE in long papers that require more complicated and multi-faceted discussions of issues?
The simple answer is . . . more PPE!
Essays are like PPE nesting dolls arranged inside of each other: the longer the paper, the more PPE dolls we have. You see, PPE applies to sections as well as individual paragraphs. It looks something like this:
Point 1 (section argument)
Subpoint A (paragraph argument)
Proof for A
Explanation of A + Transition to B (summing up A and moving on to B)
Subpoint B (paragraph argument)
Proof for B
Explanation of B
Explanation of Point 1 (summing up the overall section argument)
In this case, maybe we have too much to say about cats being low maintenance for just one paragraph. Our main Point is still that cats are low maintenance, but we will divide this into two sub-arguments: a) cats are low-energy and b) cats are self-cleaning. This gives us more time and space to fully explain our position and to include more quality proof.
To accomplish this, we simply modify the PPE structure a little. In the first paragraph, we will have two topic sentences: the first presents the argument that the whole section wants to make; the second introduces only the argument of the first paragraph. This is followed by relevant evidence. Then, instead of merely explaining the first paragraph, we use the concluding sentence to give the reader a key takeaway message and transition from the argument that cats are low energy to a discussion of how cats basically clean themselves.
But Chelsea, we did all this in one paragraph before! Why do we have to write two of them to say the same thing?!
Well, writing a 1,000-word essay is different than writing one that is 10,000 words.
The example paragraph is fine, but it lacks the detail and engagement with scholarship that is required by upper-year assignments. Sometimes there is an abundance of evidence or multiple perspectives to consider, so we have to write more. This is where the traditional five-paragraph essay structure stops being useful.
No one wants to read a paragraph that goes on for three pages: it's too much information for a brain to handle. We need to be reminded frequently of the purpose and significance of what we're reading, or we’ll lose interest!
In the case of university papers, this means your TA is getting bored or confused, and that often translates to a lower grade. Cue horrified screaming.
PPE keeps all the information in our essays nice and contained so that our brains can keep track of it all. Paragraphs should have one job each, and that job should be clearly described in the first sentence (the Point). In a perfect world, the reader should be able to read only the first sentence of each paragraph and still be able to follow the argument. If you try to make too many points at once, the paper will start to feel disorganised and overwhelming; the reader will lose track of or miss important information. The solution is to organise and contain your points by using multi-layered PPE to deal with one thing at a time while keeping all the relevant bits close together.
Speaking of layers, I want to take PPE a step further to emphasise just how strong of an organising force it is in essay writing.
Think about the structure of a whole paper, especially the five-paragraph essay. It looks like this:
The introduction is the first paragraph, in which we introduce the topic and present our thesis (the Point of the paper). Next comes the body, which makes arguments in support of the thesis (the Proof). In the five-paragraph essay, we have three, and each one gets its own paragraph. Finally, we write a conclusion where we sum up the contents of the paper in a way that helps the reader to understand the significance of our arguments (the Explanation).
Sound familiar? It should. It's PPE all the way down, people!
Inception, Russian nesting dolls, turtles on the backs of turtles... think of PPE in whatever way makes the most sense to you. Just remember: whether you are writing a 1,000-word essay or a 75,000-word dissertation, it’s all PPE. All of it. Forever.
This is the structure the English-speaking brain likes. It is what it finds easiest to read and process. It is what the brain expects to see, and it will throw a hissy fit and refuse to understand the paper if the paper does not follow PPE. For this reason, mastering PPE is a crucial part of developing your writing skills. Planning your essays with this concept in mind not only makes the final product easier to read, but it also makes it easier to write and edit.
Want to know how?
Check back for part two, in which I'll lay out the common struggles and criticisms that writers face when writing essays and show how PPE will help you to overcome them with very little effort.
PPE forces you to write better.
It just does.