What is the Controlling (Central or Main) Idea?
idea (central idea or main idea) comes from the purpose and
the subject. It gives readers a map of the essay's territory, a
framework in which to interpret the specific material the essay will
present. It gives writers a basis for decision-making: every sentence,
every paragraph in the essay should be directly related to the
controlling idea. In math terms, you might say:
Many Controlling Ideas
controlling idea =
purpose x subject x your point of view.
If you thought the purpose of this essay was to give information, you
didn't understand the task. The purpose was to persuade the
principal to let your club hold the dance in the school. Your job
wasn't to inform the principal; your job was to get him or her to do to
change the rules.
If you think of the topic of a selection as a subject, then the controlling
(main or central) idea of that selection is the
most important thing said about the subject or topic.
Let's say we have an article to read in health class. The subject or
topic of the article is a well-balanced diet. The controlling (main
or central) idea of the article can be
expressed in this sentence: A well-balanced diet is a key to good
In the third paragraph of the article is this sentence: Eating
enough fruits and vegetables every day is important to having a
well-balanced diet. Is this the controlling idea for the
No. It is the topic sentence for that paragraph of supporting
detail, which will, no doubt, go on to tell of the varieties of
fruits and vegetables and the benefits of eating them. The main idea
or the controlling idea or the central idea
is still expressed in the sentence, A well-balanced diet is a key
to good health.
Just as a large company might have many department
heads but only one CEO, the reading selection can have many topic
sentences but only one controlling idea.
Another important rule
to remember is that there can be many different controlling ideas about
the same topic. The examples below show that the same general topic,
swimming, can be the basis for persuasive, informational,
and narrative controlling ideas. It is also important to note
that there are different kinds of controlling ideas for different
patterns and purposes.
Persuasive Writing's Purpose:
1. To prove a point
or to recommend an action about a topic.
Purpose: to give information about a topic.
Gives an opinion and recommends an action.
2. To prove a point or to
recommend an action about a topic.
Controlling Idea (as an opinion): It is
the responsibility of this school district to teach every child to swim.
Proves a point and suggests or implies its significance.
Controlling Idea (as a thesis): Swimming
is the most effective and most injury-free aerobic exercise you can do.
Gives instructions or directions.
Narrative Writing's Purpose:
Idea (as the motivation for a how-to): With a half hour's
practice, you can learn to swim the breast stroke so effortlessly that
you could swim for an hour without stopping.
2. Topic-Aspect: Tells
Idea (as a statement of the topic): In competitive swimming,
the individual medley consists of four parts.
To tell a series of
events that show something about a topic-often, the controlling idea is
implied rather than expressed.
Controlling Idea (as inferred from a story): It
is dangerous to swim alone.
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