From proper punctuation and the decline of the subjunctive to correct etiquette in emails and text messaging, Rogers (known at the National Geographic as StyleMaven) raises questions and renders opinions on the English language.
Topic Sentence Becomes the Whole Paragraph
Posted Sep 3,2008

Do you remember learning about topic sentences and the construction of paragraphs when you were in school? My memory is faint, so when the subject of topic sentences popped into my mind (more later about why that happened), I turned to Writers Inc, A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning, the textbook my son used several years ago while attending public high school in Maryland.

Sure enough, fairly early in the book, was a section titled “The Parts of a Paragraph,” and the first subject addressed was the topic sentence. Following this were descriptions of the body and the closing of a paragraph, and then examples of expository, descriptive, narrative, and persuasive paragraphs. Each sample paragraph comprised about 150 words.

Now, to why I’m thinking so much about paragraph construction. This morning I revised the “Credits and History” section of the National Geographic Style Manual, which I had last modified a year ago and originally wrote several years earlier. As I updated information, I was hit by how long the paragraphs were. In my more recent writing—for emails, for this blog, for an internal grammar column for the NG staff—I have adopted, without thinking much about it, what seems to be de rigueur on the Web: punchy, short paragraphs separated by lots of space.

So in revising the manual text, I broke up several of the longer paragraphs and added space between them (with help from my techie friend Tom).

I created single-sentence paragraphs—though one, I admit, is fairly long at 49 words.

And even thought about non-sentence paragraphs.

Voilà! I can join the electronic age. No need to worry about effective topic sentences; just make each paragraph a topic sentence by itself.

But this I cannot do. I can't abandon the paragraph. I was taught too well in school how to logically develop paragraphs, how to construct complex sentences within those paragraphs, how to effectively string words and thoughts together for a purpose in a neat block of words.

So, although my paragraphs may be shorter than they once were, I will restrict the number of single-sentence ones I write. And I will hope that schools continue to teach paragraph construction and that writing 150-word paragraphs does not become a lost art.

Posted by Lesley Rogers | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Writing Skills


Sep 3, 2008 10AM #

And not just shortening paragraphs, you are starting them, and some sentences, with the conjunctions 'and' and 'but'. I see at least three in your article.

I like it. But my middle school English teachers would kill me if they knew.

Sep 3, 2008 10AM #

this is too funny!
I totally write like that.

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