Whether one is a high school student attempting to pass an Advanced Placement exam or someone who paid attention to the structure of President Obama’s recent speech on Libya, one is familiar with the form and structure of the five paragraph essay. What is the historical origin of this form of essay? What makes the five paragraph essay so popular in both academic and popular culture? And what criticism have people made about this form of writing? Let us explore today the origin, popularity, and criticism of the humble five paragraph essay today.
The historical antecedents of the five paragraph essay go back a long way. As early as the ancient Middle East, parallelism (which is exhibited in the parallel three-part thesis statement that traditionally closes the introductory paragraph of a five paragraph essay) was greatly valued in Semitic poetry. The Bible, for example, contains numerous examples of paralellism that would not be out of place as the topic sentence for an essay, which can be found in prodigious quantities in the Psalms and Proverbs. Additionally, the harmony of three items can be found in the druidic ‘triads’ which formed the basis of law and knowledge in Celtic society before the Roman conquest. In a society without wide literacy, parallelism in units of three is easy to remember and therefore is a popular device for helping the memory. Other origins of the five paragraph essay are more recent. For example, Dale Carnegie advised people to “Tell people what you’re going to say, tell it, and then tell people what you told them.” The five paragraph essay does this very directly with its three part thesis statement, it’s three body paragraphs, and the three-part summary statement that begins the closing in most five-paragraph essays.
With origins as deep as Hebrew and Celtic poems and as popular as Dale Carnegie, it is little surprise that the five paragraph essay is a ubiquitous form of writing for both presidential speechwriters and high school students. A variety of websites provide useful information to high school students on how to write the five paragraph essay   . One aspect of the five paragraph essay that makes it so popular is that it provides an easy (perhaps too easy) way of organizing a paper and providing a coherent and unified theme. So long as someone can come up with three reasons or points, and show enough development of those points with suitable word choice, one can create a competent essay without a great deal of trouble. Students generally prefer methods that will earn high marks without a great deal of effort, and the five paragraph essay delivers on that. Even much longer papers can be viewed as nested five paragraph essays if one has three points and each of those points has three sub-points. By allowing the form to provide a sense of structure and organization, this format allows even students of middling academic talents to develop competent arguments with some rhetorical strength. Small wonder, therefore, that the form of the five paragraph essay is so popular.
Nonetheless, the five paragraph essay form is not without its critics. Whether they are motivated by opposition to the wooden nature of many students’ efforts to write a five paragraph essay or by jealousy and envy of the popularity of the form, or irritation of the cliched use of the structure in student essays and papers, this classic style has a legion of hostile critics. Some of these critics have been pointed out as hypocritical because the five paragraph essay is a model of the organization of professional articles (similarly inspired by Dale Carnegie’s axiom) . Other criticisms of the essay form are more fair, showing that there are a variety of forms of essays that can be used depending on the particular content and approach one wishes to choose in order to take ownership of one’s writing and not be straitjacketed by a rigid adherence to one form of writing . To be fair, criticism of the five paragraph essay is best in criticizing the failure of students to recognize that the form of an essay is only a tool for organizing one’s material in a coherent and logical fashion, rather than the master of the student. The student is intended to learn, through crafting arguments and writing essays, the proper way to control words and form logical and well-supported arguments (especially if the student has ambitions of writing on a higher level later on). That said, many students are as incompetent with the magic of words and rhetoric as the famous sorcerer’s apprentice of fairy tale is with spells. The wooden use of the form of the five paragraph essay merits criticism, but the form itself is only a tool in a large toolbox of potential writing styles for the budding author.
Given the deep and profound origins as well as the ease of structure, it is little wonder both that writers of all ages use the five paragraph essay so commonly. Nor is it any wonder that the plethora of five paragraph essays that are often filled with boring syntax or boilerplate structure have attracted a substantial legion of critics of the form and its overuse. That said, there remains a place for five paragraph essays if the form is handled skillfully by someone with strong command and control over their words and arguments that suits the intended topic at hand. The five paragraph essay need not be a dreaded or boring product, so long as it is written with skill and elan. Therefore, let us give credit where credit is due for the development of the capacity of students to write intelligible and competent essays to the humble and much-maligned five paragraph essay.