Writing Well

Neat and Tidy: Classify-Divide

Question: What do the following sentences have in common?

  • In California, it is illegal to set a mouse trap without a hunting license.
  • It is illegal to use a lasso to catch a fish in Tennessee.
  • If a man is wearing a striped suit, you cannot throw a knife at him in Natoma, Kansas.
  • Unless you have a doctor's note, it is illegal to buy ice cream after 6 P.M.in Newark, New Jersey.
  • In Minnesota, it is illegal to tease skunks.

Answer: They are all laws. Or, they are all very strange laws. If you realized this, you have the basic strategy for classify-divide essays.

Writer's Block

A classification system is useless if the categories overlap.

When you divide, you separate items from one another. When you classify, you group things in categories of similar objects. For example, a bookseller would classify The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well with The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style because both deal with English and writing. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare would go on a different shelf, however, because its distinguishing features are different. It describes one particular writer and his works, rather than instructing readers on the basics of writing.

Write Angles

Each classification system will vary, depending on the person creating it. When you're writing a classify-divide essay, any system is valid, as long as it is logical, sensible, and instructive. Division is also called “analysis.”

Here's the basic rule for a valid classify-divide essay: The classification system must serve a larger purpose other than just making piles of things. Otherwise, it's just an empty exercise. You might as well clean your garage, walk the dog, or call your mother. (So, what are you waiting for?)

The following essay divides and classifies dolphins according to their characteristics. As you read the essay, see if you agree with the method of classification. What does it suggest about the author's purpose?

A Whale of a Tale

  • There is a great deal of confusion over what the 40 different species that belong to the family Delphinidae are called. For example, is a small cetacean a “dolphin” or a “porpoise”? Some people distinguish a dolphin as a cetacean having a snout or beak, while a porpoise usually refers to one with a smoothly rounded forehead. The larger members of this porpoise and dolphin family are called “whales,” but they nonetheless fit the same characteristics as their smaller relatives. The number of different names for these creatures reflects the confusion of long-ago sailors as they tried to classify them. Unfortunately, identifying them in their home in the sea is not easy, for the main differences between members of the species is in their skeleton structure.
  • The size of the bottlenose dolphin varies considerably from place to place. The largest on record are a 12.7-foot male from the Netherlands and a 10.6-foot female from the Bay of Biscay. The heaviest dolphin on record weighed in at 1,430 pounds. A newborn calf, in contrast, is 38.5 to 49.6 inches long and weighs between 20 and 25 pounds.
  • They are mainly fish-eaters. In the wild, the bottlenose feeds on squid, shrimp, and a wide variety of fishes. In some waters, the bottlenose have gotten in the habit of following shrimp boats, eating what the shrimpers miss or throw away. They often hunt as a team, herding small fish ahead of them and picking off the ones that don't stay with the rest of the group. And they eat a lot! A United Nations report claims that a group of dolphins off the California coast eat 300,000 tons of anchovies each year, whereas commercial fishermen take only 110,00 tons.
  • There has been a great deal of discussion about the intelligence of these creatures. Whales have the largest brains—over 20 pounds—of any species, but does this mean they are smart? All cetaceans can “read” vibrations that flood their watery home. Thanks to this skill, they can recognize what kind of fish they are chasing and the shape of the ocean floor and objects on it. In turn, they can give off signals of various kinds, sometimes called “voices” or “songs.” These sounds enable cetaceans to “talk” to each other. In a laboratory, dolphins have been trained to crudely imitate the trainer's speech.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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