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Get writing with an epigram, but get it right

As an English and writing tutor, I humbly confess that sometimes I mix up words. A couple that have tripped me up in the past are “epigram” and “epitaph.” What’s the difference? For the main definitions, let’s turn to my trusty sidekick,

–noun 1. any witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed.

–noun 1. a commemorative inscription on a tomb or mortuary monument about the person buried at that site.
2. a brief poem or other writing in praise of a deceased person.

To remember the difference, think: “t” for “tomb” (epiTaph) or “ph” for “phantom” (epitaPH).

Many authors, Jodi Picoult especially, like to use epigrams in their novels (an epiGRam is “good writing”).

Since you probably spend more time reading popular fiction than wandering around graveyards, you’re more likely to come across an epigram. The subject of this blog is how to effectively use an epigram in your academic writing.

We’ve all been faced with that impossible writing assignment, a moment when we’ve stared down a blank sheet of paper and struggle to find the words to begin. Many students turn to famous quotes to get their ballpoints rolling.

This technique is fine to combat writer’s block, but it’s a tricky balancing act to choose quotes that neatly sum up your argument without relying on them to make the argument for you. Also, avoid commonplace quotes that have become clichés.

A well-chosen quote can be an effective lead-in for an essay (see the example below from one of my undergraduate term papers). Note how the quote is single-spaced and placed between my title and introductory paragraph. When a quote is pithy, relevant, and formatted this way in an essay, it is an epigram.

Mei L.
Prof. Y.
English 139T
15 Mar. 2002

On Guilt that Comes Full Circle: Pham’s Self Liberated from Abjection

“Telling is a form of healing; the Catholics with their confession, Freud with his couch, both acknowledge this. To be shriven, to be understood, to be purged. To find the necessary emotion, and release it.”[1]

At the heart of Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam is Andrew X. Pham’s abjection of the racialized history that marks him as a traitor to his Vietnamese countrymen and to his dead sister. Pham’s confrontation of this double-blame gradually diffuses the guilt that had enabled his abjection and eventually reconciles him to both parts of his Vietnamese-American selfhood. Guilt as the impetus for his journey is evident in Pham’s obsession to reclaim the past in which his perceived fault lies. While seeking redemption for his personal failure, Pham subjects himself to incessant feelings of liberal guilt for the plight of those who did not have the economic privilege to immigrate to America. In like manner, he submits to historical guilt for Caucasian Americans whose lives were affected by the Vietnam War. This is in addition to the blame Pham suffers for his sister Chi’s suicide and, derivatively, for the other females he cannot protect from harm. The self-purging that results from these experiences paradoxically enlightens Pham to the truth that his perceived betrayals are a conflation of guilt and abjection of his racialized history, rather than traitorous acts in themselves. Only in remembering, the act of writing his autobiography, does Pham release abjection from self.

[1] David Mura, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity (New York: Arbor Books, 1996), p. 223.