Specific vs. General

A generalization is a vague or indefinite statement that gives no details. Teenagers love generalizations! (Hey, there's one now!) Generalizations may work as topic sentences for paragraphs, but the rest of the paragraph then has to develop (or prove) the generalization using specific examples, details, and stories. Including such specifics in writing is an important aspect of the Ideas and Content Trait.

Here are some examples of generalizations and unanswered questions that result:

Everybody likes it. Who likes what?
You always say mean things to me! What do I say that's mean? When did I say it?
That stuff tastes good. What stuff? What does it taste like? Sweet? Buttery? Salty?
My room is a mess. Why? (Describe it!)
That teacher has a bad temper. (Prove it.) Specifically what did s/he do?
My friend is weird. Why? What does that mean?

Here is a recent example that proves the generalization used in the introduction:

Teenagers love generalizations! I know this because I have been teaching teeangers for the past 17 years, and for the past two years I have had one of my own roaming around the house. I might begin a typical conversation like this: "How was school?" The first response is usually not so much a sentence as a short, close-lipped kind of grunt, somehwere between a hum and a chuckle. The inflection rises halfway through, so it almost sounds like a two-syllable word, a word trapped inside a closed mouth and trying unsuccessfully to escape. Such a sound, while not unpleasant, defies description with mere letters. I usually try to follow up: "So it was a good day, then?" At this point she will usually condescend to actually open her mouth: "It was okay." Of course the English teacher in me won't leave it alone until I get at least one specific detail. "So, tell me one funny thing that happened today at school." When the eye-rolling finally ends, she offers this: "This one kid said something that was pretty funny and everyone started laughing." After I realize that she doesn't intend to continue and share the joke, I roll my hand in the air and say, "Please continue." Now she's getting mad: "Da-ad!" At this point I usually decide to try a new approach: I ask very specific questions. "Okay, who told the joke? What class were you in? Why was it funny? What did the teacher do? Did anyone get in trouble? Please elaborate!" The sound now trapped behind her tight lips and burning eyes is a low-pitched growl, like a Doberman about to leap at my throat, and I usually leave it at that. When my wife comes home and asks, "How was her day?" all I can offer is, "Some kid said something pretty funny and everyone laughed." My wife never gets it either. I wonder why.

Here is another example. Notice the first sentence (the topic sentence) is a generalization; if the specifics of the paragraph didn't support it, the reader wouldn't have any idea of what the writer did.

Yesterday, I did a lot. Since it was Saturday, I slept in until 9:00 o’clock, but after that I was busy all day. I started by cleaning my room. The dirty clothes were piled so deep I couldn’t shut the door, so I put all of them in the laundry hamper and took it downstairs to start some wash. While the wash was running, I emptied the dishwasher and put the clean dishes away. Then I started working on the book project I have for English class. I spent about an hour on the computer designing graphics and headlines that I can use on my poster. By that time, the laundry was done, so I moved the first load into the dryer and started another load in the washer. It had been snowing overnight, so I shoveled the driveway before going to the library to turn in the books I checked out over the holiday break. I got back home around lunchtime, but before I fixed myself a sandwich, I emptied the dryer, folded the clean clothes, and moved those in the washer into the dryer. After lunch, I watched an hour of “Trading Spaces,” and then I started putting the book project poster together. Because I ran out of glue, I had to walk to the store and buy some more. On the way home, I stopped at Blockbuster and rented a video, but I never got to watch it because after all this running around, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the couch. I accomplished a lot, but it tired me out.

Finally, here's an example to show how important descriptive details can be:

The fridge smelled funny. At first I thought it was just my imagination, but when I pulled the milk carton out and felt a solid chunk of something gurgle around in the bottom, I knew that things were not right. I peeled the lid off the tupperware container on the middle shelf. Last Monday's leftover ravioli was now covered in a pale blue fuzz and the acrid smell of rotting meat singed my nostrils briefly before I resealed the container. Upon further investigation, I found that two of the eggs were cracked and oozing onto the shelf. A sulpherous vapor rose from the cartoon, and I gagged as I reeled back. Tears in my eyes, I squinted into the very depths of the refrigerator. Way at the back, shadowed by the big Pepsi bottle and a half-used bag of now-rotting brown and yellow salad, was a mysterious plate covered in tin foil. What could it be? Fighting the rising tide of nausea, I reached into the forest of horrifying aromas and pulled out the plate. Upon removing the tin foil, I was astounded to discover that the object underneath had no smell whatsoever. I think it had been at the back of the fridge so long that it was petrified, and I still have no idea what it was. I replaced the foil and slid it far back onto the middle shelf, continuing my search. The cheese drawer proved to be a virtual laboratory of interesting odors: the cheddar was no longer orange, but a sickly shade of blue-green, and the swiss had somehow liquefied in its Ziplock bag, so it looked like curdled milk. The overpowering sourness of rotten dairy products got the best of me, and I closed that drawer and moved along to the vegetable crisper. The carrots inside were soft and flexible enough to tie in granny knots, and what was apparently once a cucumber was now slowly pickling itself in its own milky green juices. "Gross!" I wheezed as I pulled my head from the fridge. Mom had been right. The power had gone off when we were away on vacation.

Assignment: Write a generalization of your own, and then turn it into a long paragraph that contains many specific details and examples.

Before you begin, consider how even some words are general: bad, good, interesting, weird, tasty, pretty, ugly, handsome, strange, mean, nice, fine. Words like these don't actually tell the reader anything specific. Instead of using such non-specific words in your paragraph, try saying things in a more specific way. For example:

Generalization: That milk tastes weird. (Weird is a general word.)
Specific: That milk tastes sour and chunky. (Ah! Much more specific!)

Having trouble getting started? Here are some generalizations that tell. Try to turn one of them into a very specific paragraph that shows:

Submit this assignment via e-mail with your name in the subject line. Remember there are two ways to submit assignments by e-mail. I prefer the first one:

1. Save the assignment as a Word document; address an e-mail to mrthompson@dsdmail.net (don't forget the r!); attach the document to the e-mail; send it.

2. Copy the text you have written and paste it into this e-mail box. Fill in all the required information, including your name and a working return e-mail address. Send it.

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