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Paragraphs and Topic Sentences

Paragraphs and Topic Sentences

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches paragraphs and topic sentences as the body of the essay.

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Source: Douglass, Frederick. “Reconstruction,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 1995 Memorial Issue. Gutenberg eBook #206.

Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English composition. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to take a close look at paragraphs, what they are, and how they work, including two of the most important components-- topic sentences, and supporting sentences. Then we'll look at some examples so you can better understand how all these work together.

Now, we all know what a paragraph is, right? We all read them and write them. But still, it's important that we're all on the same page so we can move on to a more in depth look at how they work. So a paragraph is a collection of sentences within a piece of writing connected by a single focusing idea. In academic essays as opposed to fiction, for example, a strong paragraph spans several sentences, but tackles only one central idea. That being said, there's no such thing as the correct number of sentences in a paragraph, but a paragraph can be too long or too short. It all depends on what they're supposed to do for the writing project.

So while there's nothing inherently wrong with long paragraphs, they're often a sign that more than one idea is being discussed, so they should be broken up into two or more paragraphs. Also, an overly long paragraph puts a strain on readers. We use the breaks between paragraphs as places to rest while reading, as places to process what we've read, and to prepare to continue on through the text. So it should make sense that not giving your readers enough of these breaks will hurt your essay's readability, even if you don't change a word in it. That being said, having paragraphs that are too short is also usually a problem. Again, there's nothing inherently bad about them, but short paragraphs are often a sign of an incompletely developed idea, or that one fully realized paragraph has been arbitrarily divided into two.

And for readers, too short paragraphs can be overlooked amongst longer ones, or when they come in numbers, they can create a jittery jarring reading experience, Which is arguably just as bad as having no paragraph breaks at all. Besides, if the purposes of a paragraph are to have a central claim and to support it, then a paragraph should be long enough to do both-- that long, and no longer. And like the sentences in a paragraph, there's no correct number of paragraphs for an essay, as the number should reflect the needs of the text itself and the author's goals, which are always going to vary from text to text and from person to person.

In order to discuss more clearly the form and function of a paragraph, we need to discuss its key parts. And nothing is more central to an academically sound paragraph and than it's topic sentence. This is the sentence that most clearly expresses the thesis of a paragraph. In many ways, the paragraph is like a miniature essay, and like an essay, a paragraph's thesis often comes at or near the beginning. And so it's often, but by no means always, the topic sentence that starts a new paragraph with all the rest following it as support.

Having focused paragraphs with solid topic sentences helps anchor readers within the text, make it easier for them to absorb the writer's ideas rather than having to pay attention to how those ideas are being displayed. And for the writer, having focus paragraphs with solid sentences is also useful, as during the revision and editing process it's easier for the writer to look at each paragraph and see whether or not the single idea it articulates supports the main thesis of the essay. This question would be much easier to answer-- whether yes or no-- when the paragraph itself is clearly focused.

Now, if a topic sentence is the central thesis of the paragraph, what does that make all the other sentences? In composition, we refer to them as supporting sentences. These are the sentences in a paragraph that support its thesis, or main idea. In this way a paragraph is, again, like a miniature essay. Supporting sentences exist to explain or demonstrate the truth of the topic sentence and they can do so through the expression of ideas, facts, data, logic, or other means of intellectual support. And when writing, it's important to pay attention to what each supporting sentence is contributing to the paragraph as a whole. And to cut, change, or relocate irrelevant sentences-- any that don't do enough to support the thesis, even if they are interesting or relevant elsewhere, or for other purposes.

Now, let's take some time to look at a couple paragraphs so we can see how topic and supporting sentences can, and sometimes cannot, work together. Pause the video here, and take a moment to read this paragraph. And as you do, look for the topic sentence and any supporting sentences.

So what did you find? The topic sentence should have been fairly clear. The first sentence, at least, seems to be one. But what about the second? It doesn't really seem to be supporting the first-- or at least, not very well. And the third sentence seems to be more supporting of the second sentence than the first. So maybe that's the topic sentence. The fourth and last sentence is definitely a supporting sentence, or perhaps it could be its own topic sentence in some other paragraph.

Anyway, if, as you were reading this, you got a little confused, don't worry. I chose this paragraph because I think it demonstrates fairly well what happens when a paragraph doesn't have a clearly stated central topic. This one seems to have two, or maybe even three. And the writer, who-- if you haven't guessed yet-- is me, would benefit from a little revision time. And should probably work a little harder to make sure he knows exactly what his paragraph wants to say and why.

Now though, let's look at another paragraph, one that I don't think will cause us so much trouble. Though i should warn you, it's dealing with some pretty complex ideas, so take your time reading it. This comes from an essay titled, Reconstruction by Frederick Douglass, the writer, social reformer, statesman, and escaped slave. Pause the video, and give his words some time to sink in. This paragraph, while full of complicated ideas and a nuanced approach to them, should still have been easier to get a hold of.

You found the topic sentence, right? And you can hopefully see how every other sentence in here supports it, either by explaining why we should be thankful, or going into detail about what about rebellion gives us cause to be grateful. And did you notice the slightly circular form here? How the first and last supporting sentences seem to come back around to the same point? Though, of course, by the end, we readers are in a much better position to appreciate why or how rebellion is a good teacher. I hope so. Here, like I said above, the paragraph is like a miniature essay, almost self-contained in this case.

And now, let's look at one more paragraph-- a very different, and in many ways, much simpler, paragraph-- but one that should also help demonstrate how topic and supporting sentences can work together. Pause the video one last time, and look at over. Here, again, the first sentence is the thesis, where it works as one. And here too, though the paragraph is much more narrative, the argument it makes in it's topic sentence-- that everything changed-- is supported by the information contained in all the rest of the sentences. Whether historical, cultural, or personal, we're still being given supporting evidence about the change-- even in this, a relatively narrative piece.

Now that we've seen three different ways sentences can interact in a paragraph, we should be in a better position to read other paragraphs and to write our own. What have we learned today? Today we learned all about paragraphs, their form and their function. We looked at their primary components, topic sentences and supporting sentences. And we examined three paragraphs to see how they do and sometimes do not work together. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

A collection of sentences within a piece of writing, connected by a single focusing idea.

Topic Sentence

A sentence expressing the thesis of a paragraph.