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Paragraphs in English Writing

An illuminated manuscript with obvious paragraph marks.A paragraph is a collection of one or more sentences‏‎.

It is used to group ideas in a piece of writing or text. A paragraph, then, is part of the structure of a text:

1 or more words > 1 or more sentences > 1 or more paragraphs = text

There’s no standard definition for what makes a paragraph, but people generally accept a paragraph to be one or more sentences which support or propose a single idea.

Unfortunately this is very vague and although many people have tried to come up with better, more precise, definitions they have all failed.

Most people do, however, agree that you should not include more than one main idea in a paragraph.

Stylistics

You will see different styles of paragraphs in different kinds of writing.

In journalistic writing, online blogs for general readers and so on, you will find that paragraphs are very short, often just single sentences. This is useful as it makes reading the text very simple. The TEFL articles on this site, for example, often have paragraphs of one or two sentences.

However, you’ll see that in more formal writing paragraphs tend to be much longer. An academic work designed for undergraduate students will regularly feature longer paragraphs of longer sentences. Likewise a novel or any other more extended piece of writing will include longer paragraphs.

There are, however, no generally accepted rules about this and given that the main function of language is communication, short, easily readable, and easily understandable writing is always worth striving for.

And short paragraphs help with this.

Traditional Paragraphs and TEFL Teaching

Often English students are taught that a paragraph should have a first, main, sentence which proposes an idea and then several sentences following it which explain that idea further.

This means that someone should be able to read the first sentence of a paragraph and then ignore the rest of it without losing the thread of the entire text.

A traditional mnemonic for remembering when to start a new paragraph is:

Four “T”s, a little writing rhyme
Of Topic, Territory, Talker, Time
When there’s a change in one of these
Start a new paragraph if you please.

But again, this kind of definition is open to a lot of interpretation not least, what constitutes a single idea. Different people have very different (and equally valid) opinions about this!

In the TEFL classroom it is generally better to keep things as simple as possible when it comes to paragraphs. When they are writing students have enough to think about in getting their basic language correct without trying to work out whether the sentence they’re writing is a full idea, an explanation of a previous idea or a link to the next paragraph.

So general advice for students would be keep it simple: one, two or three short sentences per paragraph. 

When they have mastered this and if they are doing an English for Academic Purposes‏‎ course it might be worth talking about a more traditional approach to paragraphs but for General English‏‎ students it’s not usually an issue.

Best Time to Learn about Paragraphs

Students at intermediate level usually have a language proficiency which allows them to construct well-written sentences. What they may not have mastered yet is how to combine those sentences into well-formed paragraphs. Bear in mind that usually descriptive paragraphs are used when writing essays, providing reports, working on prose and so on.

Here are a few tips on how to go about helping your students produce effective descriptive paragraphs in English:

  • Begin by showing them texts which use concise sentences.

Stress how a concise style is a trademark of good English written style. If you have a monolingual class and you are familiar with the students’ Mother Tongue‏‎ (MT) you may want to provide the same text also in their own language for them to see what differences there may be between styles.

For this, you can use an excerpt from a book that has been translated from their MT into English or vice versa. If the book is a popular read in their country even better! An alternative is to select a news item which has recently made the headlines and compare how English papers have reported it with how the Press in the students’ country has covered it.

This technique works particularly well with languages which use a more intricate written style, with long sentences and even longer paragraphs, such as Italian or Greek.

Once your students are aware of the main differences and have caught onto the idea of a more economical written style, give them a suitable sample text and get them to group sentences according to the main ideas they express.

This controlled practice allows students to practice idea grouping and consolidation at the sentence level.

  • Next divide your class into pairs or small groups and assign a different topic/subject to each pair/group.

Get each pair/group to create idea sentences around it. Then ask each pair/group to combine those sentences by main ideas and finally have them put the sentences together in a descriptive paragraph.

Paragraphs & Direct Speech

Note that whenever the speaker changes in direct speech we begin a new paragraph:

“We meet again, Mr Bond,” said Dr No.

“For the last time I hope,” said Bond.

For more on this, see our main article, Punctuating Direct Speech‏‎.

Etymology & History

The word, paragraph, comes from the Ancient Greek paragraphos which means “to write beside.”

In Ancient Greek and Latin writing was done in a continuous stream with little or no spaces between words (making it similar to speech of course).

This evolved and over time spaces were introduced between words and then sentences and groups of ideas. In the Middle Ages the division between paragraphs was shown with the pilcrow symbol – ¶ – which can still be seen in word processors. Other ways of marking a new paragraph were by beginning it on a new line and indenting the first line.

Online – and in much writing now – we normally show a paragraph (as we do in this article) by simply leaving a newline space between one paragraph and the next.

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