6.1 The Structure of a Paragraph

Preview

This section of Ch. 6 will cover the following topics:

  • topic sentences
  • supporting detail
  • transitions and conclusions
  • paragraph length

The basic building blocks of language are words, which form sentences, which combine to make paragraphs. Paragraphs can stand alone or be combined to become essays, research papers, reports, letters, and books.

This chapter covers the parts of a paragraph, different types of paragraphs, and how to use paragraphs to build longer documents.

The Parts of a Paragraph

A paragraph is generally composed of a topic sentence, supporting information, and a concluding point or transition.

Topic Sentences

The main idea of the paragraph is stated in the topic sentence. A good topic sentence does the following:

  • indicates what is in the rest of the paragraph
  • contains both a topic and an opinion
  • is clear and easy to follow
  • does not include supporting details
  • engages the reader

For example:

Development of the Alaska oil fields created many problems for already-endangered wildlife.

This sentence introduces the topic and the writer’s opinion. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to explain what the problems are and how they were created. The sentence is clear and the word choice is interesting.

Here is another example:

Major league baseball has a history of cheating.

Again, the topic and opinion are clear, the details are saved for later, and the word choice is powerful.

Now look at this example:

I think that people should not take their pets to work, even for special occasions, because it is disruptive and someone might get bitten by a dog or a rabbit.

Even though the topic and opinion are evident, there are too many details (under what conditions, types of pets, different consequences). The phrase “special occasions” is vague. Also, “I think that” is unnecessary.

Revised, that sentence might read like this:

People should not take their pets to work.

The most efficient place to put a topic sentence is at the beginning of the paragraph. In college and business writing, readers often lose patience if they are unable to quickly grasp what the writer is trying to say. Topic sentences make the writer’s basic point easy to locate and understand.

Exercise 1

Read the following paragraph from Pablo Medina’s student essay (posted in Ch. 8):

I like going to the library because I can concentrate more effectively on doing my homework.  It is a very quiet place, with designated study areas where people read in peace.  When I go there, I sit in the corner because I do not like anybody disturbing me.  Also, everybody respects the place and they try to not make any noise.  Sometimes the library has special celebrations.  Even though on these days it gets too noisy to study, I can manage the situation so I can concentrate better by asking someone to let me into one of the study rooms.  There is no place like the library to really focus on my assignments.

Find Pablo’s topic sentence.  Then, answer these questions about that sentence, without referring to the rest of the paragraph:

  1. What is the topic of Pablo’s paragraph?  (Hint: The topic is not “I.”)
  2. What is Pablo’s opinion on that topic?  (Hint: The opinion is not “like.”)

Notice that Pablo’s topic sentence does not include any supporting details.

Supporting Ideas

The body of a paragraph contains supporting details to help explain, prove, or expand the topic sentence. For example, a paragraph on the topic of people continuing to work into their 70s might have a topic sentence like this:

Retirement is no longer guaranteed for many older Americans.

A supporting sentence could include some of the following:

  • Fact: Something proven to be true.  For example: More than 20 percent of adults over age 65 are currently working or looking for work in the United States.
  • Reason: An explanation or justification.  For example: The increasing life expectancy for an average American means retirement may last decades.
  • Quotation: An opinion from an expert on the topic.  For example: “Retirement is not in my vocabulary,” claims long-lived actor Betty White.
  • Example: An illustration of the point.  For example:  Last year, my grandpa had to take a job with Walmart.

A topic sentence guides the reader by signposting what the paragraph is about. All the rest of the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence. Can you spot the sentence in the following paragraph that does not relate to the topic sentence?

Health policy experts note that opposition to wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to opposition to the laws governing alcohol use. For example, some people believe drinking is an individual’s choice, not something the government should regulate. However, when an individual’s behavior impacts others–as when a drunk driver is involved in a fatal car accident–the dynamic changes. Seat belts are a good way to reduce the potential for physical injury in car accidents. Opposition to wearing a face mask during this pandemic is not simply an individual choice; it is a responsibility to others.

If you said the sentence that begins “Seat belts are” doesn’t belong, you are correct. It does not support the paragraph’s topic: which is opposition to regulations. If an idea isn’t clearly connected to the topic sentence, the writer should tie it in or take it out.

Exercise 2

Look again at Pablo’s paragraph in Exercise 1.

Identify 3 supporting details that explain, prove, or expand the topic sentence.  Write them down.

Concluding Sentences

Tip

Don’t introduce new ideas in a conclusion.  It will just confuse the reader.

In a stand-alone paragraph, a strong conclusion draws together the ideas raised in the paragraph. A concluding sentence reminds readers of the main point without restating it in exactly the same words.

Concluding sentences can do any of the following:

  • restate the main idea in a different way
  • summarize the key points in the paragraph
  • draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph
  • make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information

For example, in the paragraph above about wearing face masks, the concluding sentence repeats the idea about opposition to masks without using the exact words of the topic sentence. It also summarizes the key point: responsibility to others.

Exercise 3

Look at Pablo’s paragraph again. Find the concluding sentence.

Which of the following options does Pablo do in his concluding sentence?

    • restate the main idea in a different way
    • summarize the key points in the paragraph
    • draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph
    • make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information

Transitions

Transitions are words or phrases that help the reader move from one idea to the next, whether within a paragraph or between paragraphs. For example:

I am going to fix breakfast. Later, I will do the laundry.

“Later” transitions us from the first task to the second one. “Later” shows a sequence of events and establishes a connection between the tasks.

Tip

A transition can appear at the end of a sentence or paragraph or at the beginning of the following sentence or paragraph, but never in both places.

Look at this paragraph:

There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. For example, they get up to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient, gas-powered vehicle. Also, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Given the low costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many people will buy hybrids in the future.

The underlined words are transitions.

In a series of paragraphs, such as the body of an essay, transitions usually replace concluding sentences.  They connect ideas and move the discussion forward. For example:

Attending a community college is one way to save on the cost of college. Most lower division prerequisites–such as freshmen comp and intro to psychology–can be completed at either a community college or a four-year college, but cost significantly less at a community college.

Another way to complete college on a budget is to apply for grants and scholarships. Although not everyone qualifies for these educational benefits, many students find that they do.  It is worthwhile to look for these opportunities.

But perhaps the best way to save money on education is to…

Transitions organize the writer’s ideas and keep the reader on track. They make the writing flow more smoothly.

Beginning writers tend to rely on ordinary transitions, such as “first” and “in conclusion.” There are more interesting ways to tell a reader what you want them to know. Here are some examples:

Purpose Transition Words and Phrases
to show a sequence of events eventually, finally, previously, next, then, later on
to show additional information also, in addition to, for example, for instance
to show consequences therefore, as a result, because, since
to show comparison or contrast however, but, nevertheless, although

These words have slightly different meanings so don’t just substitute one for another that might sound newer or better. Use your dictionary to be sure you are saying what you mean to say.

Exercise 4

Look one final time at Pablo’s paragraph. Find three words or phrases in the paragraph that work as transitions. List them.

Paragraph Length

How long should a paragraph be? The answer is “long enough to explain your point but not too long.” A paragraph can be fairly short (two or three sentences) or, in a complex essay, a paragraph can be half a page. Most paragraphs contain three to six supporting sentences.

As long as the writer maintains a close focus on the topic and does not ramble, a long paragraph is acceptable in college-level writing. But often a long paragraph will not hold the reader’s interest. In such cases, divide a paragraph into two or more shorter paragraphs, adding a transitional word or phrase.

In a long piece of writing–an essay, a research paper, a book–paragraphs separate ideas into logical, manageable chunks. Effective writers begin a new paragraph for each new idea they introduce.

Takeaways

  • Topic sentences express the main idea of the paragraph and the writer’s opinion. In most academic essays, the topic sentence appears at the beginning of a paragraph.
  • Supporting sentences explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence by offering facts, reasons, quotations, or examples.
  • Concluding sentences wrap-up the points made in the paragraph.
  • Transitional words and phrases show how ideas relate to one another and move the reader on to the next point.  In a series of paragraphs, transitions often replace concluding sentences.

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