Reading and Finding The Main Idea Help

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Introduction to Finding the Main Idea

Just as there's a motive behind every crime, there's also a motive behind every piece of writing.

All writing is communication. A writer writes to convey his or her thoughts to an audience, the reader: you. Just as you have something to say (a motive) when you pick up the phone to call someone, writers have something to say (a motive) when they pick up a pen or pencil to write. Where a detective might ask, "Why did the butler do it?" the reader might ask, "Why did the author write this? What idea is he or she trying to convey?" What you're really asking is, "What is the writer's main idea?"

Finding the main idea is much like finding the motive of the crime. It's the motive of the crime (the why) that usually determines the other factors (the who, what, when, where, and how). Similarly, in writing, the main idea also determines the who, what, when, and where the writer will write about, as well as how he or she will write.

Subject vs. Main Idea

There's a difference between the subject of a piece of writing and its main idea. To see the difference, look again at the passage about the postal system. Don't skip over it! You read it in Lesson 1, but please read it again, and read it carefully.

Today's postal service is more efficient and reliable than ever before. Mail that used to take months to move by horse and foot now moves around the country in days or hours by truck, train, and plane. First-class mail usually moves from New York City to Los Angeles in three days or less. If your letter or package is urgent, the U.S. Postal Service offers Priority Mail and Express Mail services. Priority Mail is guaranteed to go anywhere in the United States in two to three days or less. Express Mail will get your package there overnight.

You might be asked on a standardized test, "What is the main idea of this passage?"

For this passage, you might be tempted to answer, "the post office."

But you'd be wrong.

This passage is about the post office, yes—but "the post office" is not the main idea of the passage. "The post office" is merely the subject of the passage (who or what the passage is about). The main idea must say something about this subject. The main idea of a text is usually an assertion about the subject. An assertion is a statement that requires evidence ("proof") to be accepted as true.

The main idea of a passage is an assertion about its subject, but it is something more: It is the idea that also holds together or controls the passage. The other sentences and ideas in the passage will all relate to that main idea and serve as "evidence" that the assertion is true. You might think of the main idea as a net that is cast over the other sentences. The main idea must be general enough to hold all of these ideas together.

Thus, the main idea of a passage is
  1. an assertion about the subject.
  2. the general idea that controls or holds together the paragraph or passage.

Look at the postal service paragraph once more. You know what the subject is: "the post office." Now, see if you can determine the main idea. Read the passage again and look for the idea that makes an assertion about the postal service and holds together or controls the whole paragraph. Then answer the following question:

Which of the following sentences best summarizes the main idea of the passage?

  1. Express Mail is a good way to send urgent mail.
  2. Mail service today is more effective and dependable than it was in the past.
  3. First-class mail usually takes three days or less.

Because choice a is specific—it tells us only about Express Mail—it cannot be the main idea. It does not encompass the rest of the sentences in the paragraph—it doesn't cover Priority Mail or first-class mail. Choice c is also very specific. It tells us only about first class mail, so it, too, cannot be the main idea.

But choice b—"Mail service today is more effective and dependable than it was in the past"—is general enough to encompass the whole passage. And the rest of the sentences support the idea that this sentence asserts: Each sentence offers "proof" that the postal service today is indeed more efficient and reliable. Thus, the writer aims to tell us about the efficiency and reliability of today's postal service.

TIP: If you are having trouble identifying the main ideas in a story, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. What unifying concept is the author striving to communicate?

  2. Is there a moral or lesson that the author is trying to teach?

  3. Are there any reoccurring symbols or imagery that the author is using to communicate a deeper meaning?

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