Paragraphs: Definition and Analysis in English Composition

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      A Paragraph in many respects resembles a whole composition. It may be narrative, descriptive, expositive, or argumentative. So far we have been dealing with whole compositions; we now take up the study of Paragraphs, sentences, and words. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is constructed with regard to Unity, Mass, and Coherence. And as a whole composition treats a single theme, so a paragraph treats one division of a theme. It has been defined as a composition in miniature. A paragraph is a sentence or a group of sentences serving a single purpose in the development of a theme. The purpose may be simply to announce the theme-subject, to make a conclusion, to indicate a transition; but in the great majority of cases its purpose is to treat a single topic. So true is this that many authors, with good reason, define a paragraph as a group of sentences treating a single topic.

Nobody would have trouble in telling where on a page a paragraph began and where it ended. The indention at the beginning, and usually the incomplete line at the end, mark its visible limits. Unfortunately there is no specified length after which the writer is to make a break in the lines and begin a new paragraph.

Long and Short Paragraphs:
      Nobody would have trouble in telling where on a page a paragraph began and where it ended. The indention at the beginning, and usually the incomplete line at the end, mark its visible limits. Unfortunately there is no specified length after which the writer is to make a break in the lines and begin a new paragraph. The length of a paragraph depends on something deeper than appearances; as the topic requires a lengthy or but a short treatment, as the paragraph may be a long summary or a short transition, the length of a paragraph varies. Yet there is one circumstance which should counsel an author to keep his paragraphs within certain bounds: he should always have regard for his readers. Readers shirk heavy labor. If a book or an article looks hard, it is passed by; if it looks easy, it is read. If the paragraphs be long and the page solid, the composition looks difficult; if the paragraphs be short and the page broken, the piece looks easy. This fact should advise a writer to make the page attractive by using short paragraphs; provided, and the provision is important, he can so make real paragraphs, divisions of composition that fully treat one topic. These divisions may in reality be but one sentence, and they may just as unquestionably be two pages of hard reading.

      Successive paragraphs, each more than a page of ordinary print in length, repel as too hard; and a series of paragraphs of less than a quarter of a page impresses a reader as scrappy, and the work seems to lack the authority of complete treatment. An author will serve his readers and himself best by so subdividing his subject that the paragraphs are within these limits.

Topic Sentence:
      Paragraphs are developments of a definite topic; and this topic is generally announced at the beginning of the paragraph. In isolated paragraphs, paragraphs that are indeed compositions in miniature, the topic-sentence is the first sentence. The reader is then advised of the subject of the discussion; and as sentence after sentence passes him, he can relate it to the topic, and the thought is a cumulative whole. If the subject be not announced, the individual sentences must be held in mind until the reader catches the drift of the discussion, or the author at last presents the topic.

      Frequently the topic-sentence is delayed until after the connection between what was said in the preceding paragraph and what will be said has been made. To establish this relation requires sometimes but a word or a short phrase, and sometimes sentences. In these cases the topic-sentence follows the transition, and it may come as late as the middle of the paragraph.

      In exposition and argument, and sometimes in the other forms of discourse, the topic-sentence may be at the end of the paragraph. This is for emphasis in narration and description. In exposition and argument it is better to lead up to an unwelcome truth than to announce it at once.

No Topic-Sentence:
      Sometimes no topic-sentence appears in the paragraph. In such a case it is easily discovered; or at times it is too fragile to be compressed into any definite shape—a feeling, or a sentiment too delicate, too volatile for expression. A paragraph with no topic-sentence is most common in narration and description.

      “The tide of color has ebbed from the upper sky. In the west the sea of sunken fire draws back; and the stars leap forth, and tremble, and retire before the advancing moon, who slips the silver train of cloud from her shoulders, and, with her foot upon the pine-tops, surveys heaven.” (“Richard Feverel,” by George Meredith.)

The Plan:
      Whether the topic form a part of the paragraph or not, it should be distinctly before the writer, and he should write upon the topic. Nothing contributes so much to the success of paragraphs as a definite treatment of one single topic. The paragraph is the development, the growth of this topic, as the plant is the development of its seed. Moreover, the development is according to a definite plan. The different steps are not usually laid out, as was done in the outline of a theme. Genung, in the “Practical Elements of Rhetoric,” presents what he calls a typical form for a paragraph. It shows that a paragraph which is fully developed is in reality a miniature theme. It is as follows:—

The Subject Proposed:
      Whatever is needed to explain the subject. Repetition. Obverse. Definition. Whatever is needed to establish the subject. Exemplification or detail. Illustration. Proof. Whatever is needed to apply the subject. Result or consequence. Enforcement. Summary or recapitulation.

Kinds of Paragraphs:
      This typical form of a paragraph embodies all that paragraphs may do, and it is the logical arrangement. However, it is rare, perhaps it never occurs, that a paragraph is found having all these elements developed. 163 The purpose determines which part of a paragraph should receive the amplification. If it be narrative or descriptive, there is no definition or proof; but the development by details will predominate. In an argument, definition and proof will form the large part of the paragraphs. Again, the position in the theme determines what kind of a paragraph should be used. In exposition the first paragraphs would be devoted to stating the proposition, and would therefore be largely given up to definition and repetition; the body would be especially paragraphs of detail and illustration; while the closing paragraph would be taken up with results and a summary. As one of the elements of a paragraph has been especially developed, paragraphs have been named paragraphs of repetition, of the obverse, of details, of instances or examples, and of comparisons. Such a division is somewhat mechanical; but for purposes of study and for conscious practice in construction it has value.

      The paragraph of details is by far the most common. It is found in all kinds of discourse. It originates from the fact that persons generally give the general truth first and follow this statement with the details or particulars. Whether the storyteller begins by saying, “Now I’ll tell you just how they happened to be there;” or the traveler writes, “From the Place de la Concorde one has about him magnificent views,” or “There were many unfortunate circumstances about the Dreyfus affair;” in each case he will follow the general statement of the opening sentence with sentences going into particulars or details.

      In narration and in a short paragraph of description this paragraph of details is frequently without a topic-sentence. The circumstances that make up a transaction are grouped, but there is no need of writing, “I will now detail this.” In the following, since the paragraph is plainly about the preparation for the fight, it is unnecessary to say so. Such a patent statement would hinder the movement of the story.

      The paragraph of comparisons tells what a thing is like and what a thing is not like. It is much used in description and exposition. It is often the clearest way to describe an object or to explain a proposition. One thing may be likened to a number of things, drawing from each a quality that more definitely pictures it; or it may be compared with but one, and the likeness may be followed out to the limit of its value. In the same manner it is often of value to tell what a thing or a proposition does not resemble, to contrast it with one or more ideas, and by this means exclude what might otherwise be confusing. Note that after the negative comparison the paragraph closes with what it is like, or what it is.

      From Macaulay’s long comparison of the writings of Milton and Dante, one paragraph is enough to illustrate the use of contrast.

      A third method of developing a paragraph from a topic-sentence is by repetition. Simply to repeat in other words would be useless redundancy; but so to repeat that with each repetition the thought broadens or deepens is valuable in proposing a subject or explaining it. No person has attained greater skill in repetition than Matthew Arnold, and much of his clearness comes from his repetition, often of the very same phrases.

      A fourth method of building up a paragraph from a topic-sentence consists in telling what it is not; that is, giving the obverse. This is very effective in argument, and is employed in exposition and description. The obverse usually follows a positive statement, and again is followed by the affirmative; that is, first what it is, then what it is not, and last, what it is again. In the following description by Ruskin, the method appears and reappears. Notice the “nots” and “buts,” indicating the change from the negative to the positive statement. It would be a sacrilege to omit the last paragraph, though it does not illustrate this manner of development.

      A fifth method of expanding a topic is by means of illustrations and examples. It is used largely in establishing or enforcing a proposition. The author selects one example, or perhaps more than one, to illustrate his proposition. Note the words that may introduce specific instances: for example, for instance, to illustrate, a case in point, and so forth.

Combines Two or More Forms:
      As was said at the beginning, a paragraph is seldom made exclusively of one form. One part of the typical paragraph is usually developed more than any other and gives to the paragraph its character and its name. By far the most common variety of paragraph is that which combines two or more of the other forms. It is not necessary to cite examples; they are everywhere. Though combination is the commonest method of development, it should be guarded. It is a poor paragraph that combines the forms indiscriminately. It should follow some plan; and the best plan is the one already given in the typical paragraph.

      All paragraphs, whatever be the special method of development, are governed by the three principles which have guided in the structure of whole compositions. Whether the purpose be to prove or to narrate, to enforce a conclusion or to illustrate, if a paragraph is to produce its greatest effect, it should have unity, it should be well massed, and it should be coherent.

      It is not necessary now to define unity in a paragraph; the need is rather to notice the offenses against it that frequently occur. They are manifestly two: too much may be included, and not all may be included. The accompanying circumstance of the one, not necessarily the cause, however, is often a very long paragraph, and of the other a short paragraph.

      Violations of the unity of a paragraph most frequently result from including more than belongs there. The theme has been selected; it is  and concise. When one begins to write, many things crowd in pell-mell. Impressions, which come and go, we hardly know how or why, are the only products of most minds. Impressions, not shaped and logical thoughts, make up the mixed confusion frequently called a theme. The writer puts down enough of these impressions to make a paragraph, and then goes on to do it again, fancying that so he is really paragraphing. Even should he keep within the limits of his theme, he cannot in this way paragraph. As everything upon a subject does not belong in a theme, so everything in a theme may not be introduced indiscriminately into any paragraph.

      The other danger lies in the short paragraph. It does not allow a writer room to say all he has to say upon the topic, so it runs over into the next paragraph. All of the thought-paragraph should appear in one division on the page. This error is not so common as the former.

Need of Outline:
      The remedy for this confusion clearly is hard thinking; and a great assistance is the outline. Before a word is written, think through the theme; get clearly the purpose of each paragraph in the development of the whole. Then write just what the paragraph was intended to include, and no more. More will be suggested because the parts of a whole theme are all closely related, but that more belongs somewhere else. Make a sharp outline, and follow it.

      A paragraph should be so arranged that the parts which arrest the eye will be important. When a person glances down a page, his eye rests upon the beginning and the end of each paragraph. A reader going rapidly through an article to get what he wants of it does not read religiously every word; he knows that he will be directed to the contents of each paragraph by the first and last sentences. If a writer considers his readers, if he desires to arrange his paragraph so that it will be most effective, he will have at these points such sentences as will accurately indicate its contents and the trend of the discussion; and he will form these sentences so well that they will deserve the attention which is given them by reason of their position in the paragraph.

What begins and what ends a Paragraph?
      What are the words that deserve the distinction of opening and closing a paragraph? As in the theme, so in a paragraph, the first thing is to announce the subject of discussion. When the subject is simply announced without giving any indication as to the drift of the discussion, the conclusion of the discussion is generally stated in the last sentence. Burke says, “The first thing we have to consider with regard to the nature of the object is the number of people in the colonies.” He concludes the paragraph with, “Whilst we are discussing any given magnitude, they are grown to it. Whilst we spend our time in deliberating on the mode of governing two millions, we shall find we have millions more to manage. Your children do not grow faster from infancy to manhood than they spread from families to communities, and from villages to nations.” In other cases the opening sentence states the conclusion at which the paragraph will arrive. Then the closing sentence may be a repetition of the opening or topic sentence; or it may be one of the points used to exemplify or establish the proposition which opens the paragraph. Again, in a short paragraph the topic need not be announced at the beginning; in this case it should be given in the concluding sentence. Or, should the topic be given in the opening sentence of a short paragraph, it is unnecessary to repeat it at the end. In any case, whether the paragraph opens with a simple announcement of the topic to be discussed, or with the conclusion which the paragraph aims to explain, establish, or illustrate, or whether it closes with the conclusion of the whole matter, or with one of the main points in the development, the sentences at the beginning and the end of a paragraph should be strong sentences worthy of their distinguished position.

Length of opening and closing Sentences:
      By examination, one finds that the first sentence of a paragraph of exposition and of argument is usually a terse statement of the proposition; and that after the proposition has been established there follows a longer sentence gathering up all the points of the discussion into a full, rounded period which forms a suitable climax and conclusion of the paragraph. Of Macaulay’s “Milton” one is quite inside the truth when he says that of those paragraphs containing an opening topic-sentence and its restatement as a conclusion, the closing sentence is the longer in the ratio of two to one. In Burke’s “Conciliation,” the ratio rises as high as four to one. There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Paragraphs sometimes close with a shorter statement of the proposition, a sort of aphorism or epigram. As this kind of sentence is fascinating, some books have said that paragraphs should close so; that it is like cracking a whip, and gives a snap to the paragraph not gained in any other way. Even if readers enjoyed having paragraphs close in this cracking manner, it must be borne in mind that not all conclusions are capable of such a statement, and, what is worse, that the tendency to seek for epigrams leads to untruth and a degenerated form of witticism. Such forced sentences are only half truths, or they are a bit of cheap repartee. Such a close is effective, if the whole truth can be so expressed; but to seek for such sentences is dangerous. The best rule is the one already stated; it applies to the long sentence and the short sentence alike. It is that a paragraph should close with words that deserve distinction.

      The body of a paragraph should have the matter so proportioned that the more important points shall receive the longer treatment. In a paragraph of proof, details, or comparison, that point in the proof, that particular, that part of the comparison, which for the specific purpose has most significance, should have proportionately fuller treatment. It is the same principle already noticed in exposition. Indicate the relative importance of topics in a paragraph by the relative number of words used in their treatment.

      For mass in a paragraph, then, keep in mind that the last sentence should contain matter and form worthy of the position it occupies; that the position of next importance is at the beginning; and that the relative importance of the matters in the body of a paragraph is pretty correctly indicated by the relative length of treatment.

Coherence and Clearness:
      Coherence, the third principle of structure, is the most important; and it is the most difficult to apply. For one can make a beginning and an end, he can select his materials so that there is unity, but to make all the parts stick together, to arrange the sentences so that one grows naturally from the preceding and leads into the next, requires nice adjustment of parts, and rewriting many times. How essential coherence in a paragraph is, simply to make the thought easy to grasp, may be seen by taking a paragraph to pieces and mixing up its sentences, and at the same time removing all words that bind its parts together.

      Coherence, so necessary to the easy understanding of a paragraph, is gained in three ways: by the order in which the sentences are arranged; by the use of parallel constructions for parallel ideas; and by the use of connectives.

Two Arrangements of Sentences in a Paragraph:
      Material which has been selected with regard to the principle of unity is all informed with one idea. Yet though one thought runs through it all and unites it, the parts do not stand in an equally close relation to the conclusion, nor is each part equally related to every other part. Had they been, the last paragraph quoted would have been as well in one order as another. Rather the sentences seem to fall into groups of more closely related matters; or at times one sentence seems to follow as the direct consequence of the preceding sentence. With respect to the way in which the sentences contribute to the topic of the paragraph, whether the topic be announced first or last, sentences may be said to contribute directly to the proposition or indirectly. If directly, the paragraph is a collection of sentences, each having a common purpose, each having a similar relation to the topic, arranged, as it were, side by side, and advancing as one body to the conclusion. This may be termed an individual arrangement of sentences, since as individuals they each contribute to the topic. The conclusion derives its force from the combined mass of all. If indirectly, the paragraph is a series of sentences, each growing out of the one preceding it, each receiving a push from the sentence before, and the last having the combined force of all. This may be styled a serial arrangement of sentences, since in such a case each contributes to the topic only as one in a chain. The former overcomes by its mass; the latter strikes by reason of its velocity. The one advances in rank; the other advances in single file.

      An illustration of each will help to an understanding of this. In the following paragraph from Macaulay’s essay on Milton, each of the details mentioned points directly to “those days” when the race became a “byword and a shaking of the head to the nations.” Their aggregate mass enforces the topic of the paragraph. They are all one body equally informed with the common principle which is the topic. Notice that one sentence is not the source of the next, but that all the sentences stand in a similar relation to the conclusion. This arrangement is common in description. In the second paragraph, from Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” each detail contributes to the appearance of Ichabod, not through some other sentence, but directly.

      This division has been made because by its aid an approach can be made toward rules for arrangement. Is there, then, no reason why one should be first rather than another? Notice the topics of the sentences and the order becomes a necessity. King, state policy, government, liberty, religion,—it is an ascending scale. On page 96 is a paragraph on the charmed names used by Milton. “One,” “another,” “a third,” “a fourth,”—for all one can see as to the relation of each to the topic, “a fourth” might as well have been “one” as fourth. But upon reading the paragraph it is evident that Macaulay thought the last more important than the first. So in the paragraph just quoted about the Puritans, when the arrangement of the first eight sentences changes in sentences nine through eleven, and again in sentences sixteen to twenty, the order is a climax. Moreover, those topics are associated which are more closely related in thought. King is more closely related to government than to religion, and religion is more intimately associated with the idea of liberty than with king. The order, then, is the natural order of association. From these examples we derive the first principle of arrangement. In a paragraph where several sentences contribute individually to the topic, they must be arranged in the order in which the thoughts are associated and follow each other; and, when possible, they should take the order of a climax.

Definite References:
      In the paragraph made up of sentences in a series, each linked to the sentence before and after, the difficulty is in transmitting the force of one sentence to the next one undiminished. This is done by binding the sentences so closely together that one cannot slip on the other. In the paragraph about the Puritans, of the second sentence the “Great Being” goes back to “superior beings” of the first; and “Him” in the next springs from “Great Being.” “To know Him, to serve Him, to enjoy Him,”—what is it but the “pure worship” of the fourth? while “ceremonious homage” of the fourth is the “occasional glimpses of the Deity through an obscuring veil” of the fifth. One sentence grows out of some phrase of the preceding sentence; the sentences are firmly locked together by the repetition, a little modified, of the thought of a preceding phrase. There is no slipping. To get this result there must be no question of the thought-sequence in the sentences. Each sentence must be a consequence of a preceding sentence. And there must be attention to the choice and position of the words from which the following sentence is to spring. Such words cannot be indefinite, mushy words; they must be definite, firm words. Moreover, they must not be buried out of sight by a mass of unimportant matters; they must be so placed that they are unhindered, free to push forward the thought toward its ultimate conclusion. This often requires inversion in the sentence. That phrase which is the source of the next sentence must be thrown up into a prominent position; and it is usually pressed toward the end of the sentence, nearer to the sentence which is its consequence. “Slow and obscure,” “inadequate ideas,” “small circle,” and the numerous phrases which repeat the thought, though not the words, are firm words binding the sentences together indissolubly.

Use of Pronouns:
      Not all sentences permit such clear reference as this. Still it must be said that where the thought is logical and clear, the reference is never missed: the binding words are important words and they occupy prominent positions. There is, however, a whole group of words whose function is to make the references sure. They are pronouns. Pronouns refer back, and they point forward. Their careful use is the commonest method of making sure of references, and so of binding sentences together. The ones in common use are this, that, the former, the latter; the relatives who, which, and that; and the personal pronouns he, she, it. To these may be added some adverbs: here, there, hence, whence, now, then, when, and while. The binding force of these words is manifest in every paragraph of composition.

Of Conjunctions:
      Another group of words which give coherence to a paragraph is conjunctions. They indicate the relations between sentences, and they point the direction of the new sentence. The common relations between sentences indicated by conjunctions are coördinative, subordinative, adversative, concessive, and illative. Each young writer has usually but one word, at the most two words, in his vocabulary to express each of these relations. He knows and, but, if, although, and therefore. Each person should learn from a grammar the whole list, for no class of words indicates clear thinking so unmistakably as conjunctions.

      Two words of advice should be given regarding the use of conjunctions. If the thought all bends one way, if this direction is perfectly clear, there is no need of conjunctions. It is when the course of the discussion is tortuous, when the road is not direct, when the reader may lose the way without these guides, that conjunctions should be used. On the other hand, conjunctions are an annoyance when not needed. Just as guideposts along a road where there is no chance to leave the direct path are useless, and their recurrence is a cause of aggravation, so it is with unnecessary conjunctions. They attract attention to themselves, and so draw it from the thought. The first caution is, Do not use conjunctions unless needed.

      The other word is: When possible put the conjunction that connects two sentences into the body of the sentence, rather than at its beginning. In this way its binding power is increased. This principle should limit the use of and and but at the beginning of a sentence. Rarely is and needed in such a place. If the thought goes straight forward—and it must do so if and correctly expresses the relation—there is usually no gain in its use. At times when the reader might be led to expect some change of direction from some phrase in the preceding sentence, then it would be wise to set him right by the use of and. Moreover, there are times when coördinate thoughts are so important, and the expression of the coördination is so important, that a sentence beginning with and is the only adequate means of expressing it. However, be very sure that there is need for every and that you use. The same caution may be given about but. But indicates an abrupt turn in the thought. Is such a contrast in the thought? If so, is there no other word to express the thought? Some persons go so far as to say that these words should never begin a sentence. This is too pedantic and not true. When coördinative and adversative relations are to be expressed, however, it is certainly more elegant if some variety can be obtained, and the union is closer if the conjunction be placed in the body of the sentence. This requires the use of other words besides and and but. Also, in like manner, besides, too, nevertheless, however, after all, for all that, should be as familiar as the two overworked words and and but. Look for ways to bind sentences in the middle rather than at the end. It is more elegant and it is much safer.

Parallel Constructions:
      A third principle of arrangement is the use of parallel constructions for parallel thoughts. By parallel structure is meant that the principal elements of the sentences shall be arranged in the same order. If subordinate clauses precede principal clauses in one sentence, they shall in the other; if they follow in one, they shall follow in the other. If an active voice be used in one, it shall be used in the other; if the predicate go before the subject in one, it shall in the other. The use of parallel structure frequently demands repetition of forms and even of identical words and phrases. It is very effective in giving clearness to a paragraph and in securing coherence of its parts.

      Good sense must be exercised in the use of parallel constructions. Although a short series of sentences containing parallel thoughts is common and demands this treatment, it is not at all frequent that one has such a long series as these paragraphs contain. In these paragraphs the parallel is in the thought; it has not been searched out. Because one is pleased with these effects of parallel construction, he should not be led to seek for opportunities where he can force sentences into similar shapes. The thoughts must be parallel. If the thought is actually parallel, a parallel treatment may be adopted with great advantage to clearness and force; if it is not parallel, any attempt to treat it as such is detected as a shallow trick. To search for thoughts to trail along in a series results in thinnest bombast. As everywhere else in composition, so here a writer must rely on his good taste and good sense.

      Whatever may be the special mode of development, of whatever form of discourse it is to be a part, the three fundamental principles which guide in making a paragraph are Unity, Mass, and Coherence. The unity of the paragraph is secured by referring all of the material to the topic, including what contributes to the main thought and excluding what has no value. Paragraphs excessively long or very short may lead to offenses against unity. Mass in a paragraph is gained by placing worthy words in the positions of distinction; by treating the more important matters at greater length; and, when possible without disturbing coherence, by arranging the material in a climax. Coherence is secured by keeping together matters related in thought; by a wise choice and placing of all words which bind sentences together; and by the use of parallel constructions for parallel ideas. Carefully chosen material, arranged so that worthy words occupy the positions of distinction, and all so skillfully knit together that every sentence, every phrase, every word, takes the reader one step toward the conclusion,—this constitutes a good paragraph.

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