"Nuance" describes subtle differences, generally referring to color, tone, or meaning. But what does this difference exactly refer to in the context of a thesis? For example, if my thesis is "nuanced," what does my thesis have subtle differences from? Is this referring to "theses in general," and therefore meaning that my thesis is original by its subtle differences, but similar to many arguments made on the subject?

Or, does this mean that my thesis handles many similar but slightly different ways to interpret the subject it is talking about?

Or, perhaps, does this mean that my thesis talks about a subject, but has "slight differences" from a simple answer to the question—that is, the thesis answers the given prompt on the subject, but is structured with "subtle differences" such that it answers more than what the given prompt asks you to answer?

Edit: A fourth interpretation came to mind: does this mean that the ideas within my thesis are subtly different from each other?

The context for this is that I am studying for the ACT, and one of the criteria for "Ideas and Analysis" part of the rubric says that "the argument’s thesis [should reflect] nuance and precision in thought and purpose."

If my thesis should reflect nuance in thought and purpose, and nuance is defined as "subtle difference," what exactly should my thought and purpose reflect subtle difference from? I'm assuming this is stating that my thought and purpose should be subtly different from the thoughts and purpose of "people in general" (whatever that means), but when I search for examples of a "nuanced thesis," I am unsure as to whether this interpretation of the word in this context is right.

Here is an example given by hateessays.com:

The example:

“Q: The main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?.”

  1. You can argue ‘yes, the main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience’ by using examples of humour, suspense etc.
  2. You can also argue ‘no, the purpose of a film is not to entertain -it’s to educate’. Or you could go as far as saying ‘the purpose of a film is to indoctrinate – or solely to make money’. Those are extreme positions, though – good luck arguing them.

A nuanced argument: elegant and sophisticated.

  1. one nuanced argument would be to define “entertain[ing] an audience” to include feelings of horror and pity, as well as happiness.

From this, it seems my third interpretation of what "nuanced" is supposed to mean is correct. In this usage of the word, what do "nuanced" things have subtle differences from?

  • 'nuanced' allows qualifications.
    – Mitch
    Dec 7, 2016 at 16:30
  • 2
    Here's a stab at an answer. A nuanced thesis explores the subtle differences, as opposed to being subtly different from another thesis. If it only looks at one 'variant', it's not nuanced. If it looks at more than one, and explains why or how they are (subtly) different, it's nuanced.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 7, 2016 at 16:43

2 Answers 2


I would delve past the word nuanced, to the quality of subtlety.

A nuanced thesis, argument, or debate of any kind possesses "subtle distinction or variation" in its details, borrowing the first sense described by Merriam-Webster.

Then I would turn to the second sense of subtle: "having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly [Example: a subtle scholar]", by Merriam-Webster again; emphasis added at "deeply and thoroughly".

This means that you should avoid a superficial treatment of the topic, and do not over-simplify or choose between false dichotomies. In that linked Wikipedia article, heed the advice that there "may be a position that is between two extremes (such as when there are shades of grey)" — nuances, in other words — or consider a completely different and novel alternative, and be prepared to answer the most serious counter-arguments of more than one viewpoint.

A nuanced thesis acknowledges all the complexities and shades of meaning present to the topic. Any solution or answer you develop may create unintended consequences and new problems, and a nuanced thinker tries to anticipate those and adequately address them.

Remember, the ACT rubric also calls for precision of thought, so the writer must aim to sift through all those subtle differences (discerning what is central and what is peripheral), finally reaching a conclusion which answers at least part of a question or conflict.

I've read theses which attached caveats to their findings, admitting how their conclusion may not be broadly applicable in other situations. Some also acknowledge lingering questions which require further inquiry or discussion, outside the scope of your original thesis and so to be taken up in a separate work or by another writer/researcher.


The ACT writing test scoring rubric states, in the "Score 6" section on Ideas and Analysis:

The argument's thesis reflects nuance and precision in thought and purpose.

Merriam-Webster defines "nuance" as

(1) a subtle distinction or variation; (2) a subtle quality; (3) sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value)

If you think about sense 3 above, there's no requirement for there to be difference or variation from anything in particular. I would think that this is the sense of "nuance" you should be paying attention to, and is what the example you gave from hateessays.com reflects.

I think you may have made your question more complicated for yourself than it needs to be by assuming that there must be something that the thesis is compared to. If you read through the rubric and look at the entirety of the "Score 6" section on Ideas and Analysis, you will see more about what ACT is looking for, and the third sense of "nuance" above should fit the bill.

  • 1
    Katherine's link to the ACT rubric was helpful. It's interesting to see what key words distinguish the highest score of 6 from lower proficiency levels. Certain key elements are required: engaging with multiple perspectives; establishing a context; the presence in the work of implications, complexities, tensions, and underlying assumptions; expression of thought and purpose. My own answer emphasized multiple viewpoints and the anticipation of unintended consequences — ACT's "implications" and "tensions" are better terms. All the marks of a subtle writer. Dec 7, 2016 at 23:59

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