ENGL 101
English Composition I
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This is the explanation of this type of essay. For the actual essay assignment, go here.

Classification/Division is concerned with breaking large groups of things, people, ideas, etc. into more understandable and workable categories. If you’ve ever heard anyone talking about a type, they’ve been working with divisions. Divisions can be used to create harm, as with stereotypes, but they can also help us begin to understand how and why things are different (as well as similar). The key is to understand the reason for the classification/division.

Classification/Division as a form of organization has two primary purposes: sorting and explaining.


is when the writer takes a large group of things (the bigger the group the better), like the members of a class, or the students in a school, or the shoppers at a hardware store, and divides them into smaller groups. The writer should focus on what separates the group from the main population, but also connects the subjects to each other.

Biologists have done this: they looked at all the animals known to exist and began to divide them based on basic similarities like whether they were egg-laying, or had vertebrae, or ate primarily vegetation, etc. This gave them the ability to separate insects from mammals from reptiles from birds.

Sorting can be done on many levels. It can be as broad or precise as the writer needs it to be. Generally, the more the writer knows about the subject, the more precise they can be. To the average person, a beetle is just a bug. They recognize that it’s not a mosquito or dragonfly, but that’s about it. But to an expert on beetles, there are scarab beetles and stag beetles and longhorn beetles and… The differences are very important to the experts, and if they choose to write about those differences, they need to make sure that the reader sees that importance. That leads us to the second step: explaining.


is the real core of the classification/division essay. Sorting and organizing things into groups is easy. Small children regular sort their crayons (the reds here, the blues here, etc.) or their toy cars (here’s the police cars, here’s the fast cars, here’s the army cars, etc.). Almost everything that we encounter has been organized/sorted in some way. Imagine going to the grocery store with the groceries placed on the shelves alphabetically, or in random fashion. They grocery store works because we know where things are supposed to be, in general. However, did you ever ask why certain parts of a grocery store are regularly placed in the back corners? Almost every grocery store will place the meat and dairy in back corners deliberately so that the shopper has to walk past the other groceries in order to make their basic purchases. That’s the EXPLANATION of the organization. There’s a meaning, a purpose to the groupings.

Most writers will use labels for their categories. If they are describing standard categories (like types of beetles), they will use the standard categories. Then the explanation will be about what the content of the standard categories can tell us. If they are writing a division based more on their own experiences and knowledge (types of grocery shoppers), then the labels will be more unique and individual. Then, the meaning is often related to why the category exists, not how many items are in it.

For example, every music store is divided into the standard categories: rock, rap, country, classical, jazz, etc. If a writer were to write a classification essay about their CD collection, they could divide their collection into these categories, but that would give the reader no real meaning, because the reader already knows that these categories exist, they expect them to be there. Instead the meaning would come from analyzing the tastes of the owner of these particular CDs. Lots of heavy metal, but no classical tells us things about the owner, as does having twice as much jazz as rap.

On the other hand, the writer might want to divide the music into their own categories: this is car music, this is study music, this is date music, this is hackysack music, etc. In this particular case, the essay is going to have to define the category for the reader and explain why it is a significant enough reason to justify its own category. The essay then becomes explaining what the music means and is used for by the owner, not necessarily what it tells us about the owner. The difference between the two is subtle, but it’s there.

The main difficulty that writers have with classification is that they describe the categories but don’t bother to give them any meaning. There has to be a reason why the writer is presenting us with these divisions. A writer who works in a hardware store might write an essay about the types of customers who come in the store. This essay can have several different purposes.

None of these examples is better than the other. All of them are classification/division essays. All of them would use the same basic categories. The difference is in the analysis, the explanation, the purpose and focus given to those categories by the writer.

To write a good classification/division essay, a writer needs to: