Three terms describe the relations among the elements of a hierarchy. The first is "superordinate." The word, "super," means very large, extreme, or above. The root of the word "ordinate" is the Latin word "ordinare" which means to set in order. From this we get the term "ordinal numbers." The ordinal numbers are expressed as first, second, third, fourth, etc. So a superordinate is the first of the elements in a structure and stands alone on a level above all the others. In any hierarchy, there can be only one superordinate. In the Catholic Church there can be only one Pope, and in an essay, there can be only one main idea. If you think you have two main ideas, then you probably have the beginnings of two different essays. To maintain the unity of the discourse and still include the two most important ideas you have identified, the solution is to discover a still more general ideas that will logically include these two, making them subordinate. Otherwise, you will have to decide between the two or write different papers.
The second term used to describe the relations among the elements of a hierarchy is "subordinate." The prefix "sub—" means under or below. So in a hierarchy all the elements are subordinate to the one superordinate that stands at the top of the structure, and the successive ranks or grades on each level are subordinate to the ones above. For example, in the Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals is subordinate to the Pope, the archbishops are subordinate to the cardinals, and the bishops are subordinate to the archbishops.
The third term used to describe the relations among the elements of a hierarchy is "coordinate." The prefix "co—" means together, jointly, mutually. Thus, we have committees (groups of people that work together for a common goal) as well as coconspirators (groups of people who plot together for some illegal purpose). In a hierarchy, the elements on any particular level are equal to one another. All of the bishops in the Catholic Church enjoy the same privileges and exercise the same authority within that portion of the church that they oversee, and the sheriffs in the counties of the state have the same powers and responsibilities under the attorney general.
A hierarchy is a logical structure. This means that the elements in the hierarchy and their relative positions (coordinate or subordinate) can be rationalized by analyzing the attributes of the elements and the way they interact.
When applied to a written discourse, the elements to be analyzed and placed in their proper relations are called propositions. The logical relations among the propositions can be represented by an outline. The logical relations among the propositions is determined by asking the question: What is this proposition talking about?
The answer to the question will determine the place of the proposition in the hierarchy of ideas represented by the outline. A particular proposition will either be an addition to a previous one (a coordinate relationship) or it will be a comment on some previous proposition (a subordinate relationship).
For example, in a paragraph, all the sentences will be subordinate to the topic sentence (the topic sentence is the superordinate) because each will be either a direct or an indirect comment on the topic sentence. (When this is the case, you have paragraph unity.) But the sentences will bear either coordinate or subordinate relations among themselves, depending on which previous sentence each succeeding sentence comments on.
A strong hierarchy is one which conforms to the rules which define hierarchies. The ideal hierarchy can be represented in an outline. It will have one explicitly stated main idea at the beginning (the superordinate)and all the statements in the discourse will be related to this one main idea either directly or indirectly. The supporting statements will be organized on levels. At each level, the statements are comments on the ideas in the level directly above and are therefore subordinate to them. At the same time, the ideas at any one level are coordinate with one another in terms of generality. Thus, the ideas in a hierarchy progress from the most general (the superordinate) to the most specific and detailed at the lowest (mot subordinate) level. In all cases the relations between the ideas must be logical and should be grammatically explicit.
Hierarchies are not found in nature, they are artifacts of human thinking. A hierarchy is a tool used to impose structure on the apparent chaos of the universe so that we can make sense of it; that is, impose meaning on it.
Just as the the superordinate of a paragraph is the topic sentence, so the superordinate of an essay is the thesis. The thesis limits what can be included in the essay just as the topic sentence limits what can be included in a paragraph. The thesis should always be stated at the top of an outline. Immediately subordinate to the thesis are the main supporting points. These are designated in the outline by the Roman numerals: I, II, III, IV, etc. In the essay, each of the points designated by a Roman numeral is stated in a topic sentence. The next level in the outline identifies the sub-points and these are designated by capital letters: A, B, C, D, etc. At his level the writer introduces evidence in support of his topic sentence. He uses facts, statistics, examples, or the words of authorities to illustrate and support the idea in his topic sentence. He also interprets this information for the reader, showing how the evidence illustrates or supports the idea expressed in the topic sentence.
Theoretically there is no limit to the number of subordinate levels that can be added to the outline. A knowledgeable and creative writer can always provide additional facts or commentary.
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