free pages from our English Language software program
Paragraphs – definition
Paragraphs are (usually) a group of sentences which deal with one topic.
The sentences are related to each other to produce an effect of unity.
The group of sentences form a single unit of meaning.
The following example of a paragraph is itself the definition of a paragraph:
The central thought or main controlling idea of a paragraph is usually conveyed in what is called a topic sentence. This crucial sentence which states, summarises or clearly expresses the main theme, is the keystone of a well-built paragraph. The topic sentence may come anywhere in the paragraph, though most logically and in most cases it is the first sentence. This immediately tells readers what is coming, and leaves them in no doubt about the overall controlling idea. In a very long paragraph, the initial topic sentence may even be restated or given a more significant emphasis in its conclusion.
Paragraphs are used to divide a long piece of writing into separate sections.
Each of these sections should deal with one issue, or one topic in a sequence.
Paragraphs are a device to create firm structure in writing.
They can also be used to give rhythm, variety, and pace to writing.
NB! If in doubt, keep your paragraphs shorter, rather than longer.
The recommended structure of a typical paragraph in academic writing is as follows. [It is rather like a mini-version of the structure of a complete essay.]
- The opening topic sentence
- A fuller explanation of the topic sentence
- Supporting sentences which explain its significance
- The discussion of examples or evidence
- A concluding or link sentence
The start of a new paragraph is usually signalled by either a double space between lines, or by indenting the first line of the new paragraph.
Very short paragraphs are often used in literary writing for stylistic effect.
One of the most famous examples of this device comes from the Bible [John 11:35].
When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled. And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.
The longer the paragraph, the more demands it makes on the reader.
The length of paragraphs can be varied to give rhythm and ‘pace’ to a piece of writing [rather like variations in sentence-length].
The last sentence in a paragraph is often used to provide a link to the next.
The following example [written by E.M.Forster] shows the skilful use of an attention-grabbing first sentence, and a concluding sentence which whets the reader’s appetite to know more about the subject:
John Skelton was an East Anglian: he was a poet, also a clergyman, and he was extremely strange. Partly strange because the age in which he flourished – that of the early Tudors – is remote from us, and difficult to interpret. But he was also a strange creature personally, and whatever you think of him when we’ve finished – and you will possibly think badly of him – you will agree that we have been in contact with someone unusual.
© Roy Johnson 2003