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Paragraph Rules | Elementary and Middle School October 19, 2009

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A Paragraph Beautifully Defined

A paragraph is a collection of sentences with unity of purpose. A paragraph handles and exhausts a distinct topic.
                                                                   Alexander Bain – 1871
 
This description of a paragraph is about as good as it gets! Alexander Bain is also credited as having been the first person to have formally laid down the rules of paragraph construction.  (Bain’s original rules for paragraphs are outlined below.)

A Modern Look at Paragraph Rules

There is a beauty and logic to all of Bain’s rules for paragraphs, however modern paragraph theory is a little more generalized and seems to center on these three principles. All-in-all they do contain most of Bain’s ideas, however, they also allow a little more freedom for creativity in paragraph construction.

1. Unity – Single minded focus of ideas. All the sentences must have unity of purpose AND there must be no information in the paragraph which does not serve that purpose.

2. Coherence – Ideas flow in a manner which makes them easily understandable.

3. Development – Ideas support and develop a topic sentence or main idea.

Alexander Bain’s Six Paragraph Rules Paraphrased for Easy Reading and Easy Understanding

1. The direction and purpose of each sentence should connect to what came prior. This must be explicit and unmistakable.

2. When several consecutive sentences repeat or illustrate the same idea, they should, as much possible be formed alike. (Parallel construction) The main subject and predicate should maintain their positions throughout.

3. The opening sentence (topic sentence) is expected to indicate the subject of the paragraph.

4. Each sentence in a paragraph should be found in its most suitable location within the paragraph. Every paragraph has a plan dictated by the nature of the composition. As such, sentences should be laid out in accordance of this plan. An out of place sentence brings confusion.

5. A paragraph should possess unity and contain a definite purpose. There should be no sentences or information contained in that paragraph which does not support that purpose. 

6. The big sentences within the paragraph should be the important ideas. The smaller sentences should be the less important ideas. Everything should have bulk and prominence according to its importance.

Interesting concepts! Proportion, symmetry, parallelism, balance…

Paragraph Writing is an Art, but Don’t Forget the Rules!

It wasn’t until the 1600’s when the growing importance of the printing press would put the paragraph on the road to its current prominence in the written English language. (In fact, some still consider the paragraphs most important attribute to be the visual aspect that helps the reader to clearly survey the printed page.)

It’s a little surprising to think that before 1871 the rules of paragraphs had not been clearly laid down. When you think about it… 1871 is not that long ago! 

Though the rules of paragraphs have become more universally understood and taught, there remains much art in what writers actually do. Most confident writers rarely think of the rules of paragraphs as they write. Confident writers just know when to start a new paragraph without even thinking about it. (Most then make changes to their paragraphs as they reread and edit.)

Supporting the argument that there is an art to paragraph writing… beyond rules, is that studies have shown that when paragraph formatting is removed from a piece of writing, few people will re-paragraph it the same way it was before. In fact, the same person may not re-paragraph it the same way two times in a row.

Teaching Kids Paragraphs

Early in my teaching career I remember spending lots of time trying to get students to master paragraphs. I thought, “If I can just get them to master these paragraphs… it’s going to change everything!” 

What I learned was that students don’t develop paragraph mastery until they develop an understanding of how paragraphs fit together within an essay, and understand the relationship between paragraphs and the introduction and conclusion.

A paragraph in multi-paragraph writing reveals the truer purpose and the truer need for the paragraph. Paragraphs make sense to students when they discover how to create a unique “unity of purpose” for each distinct paragraph in their multi-paragraph writing.

It’s a great feeling when you see your students stop thinking about the rules, but still maintain wonderful paragraph structure and paragraph form! That’s what I call a “confident writer!”

Find out how to make this happen at the “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” homepage!

2 Comments
Roger April 12th, 2010

Educationists William West, Stephen Bailey, Berenice Wood criticize the paragraphing established by Bain. They refer to a researcher (unsourced) who examined the paragraphs of professional writers in the real world.
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According to West et al the researcher found that only a minority of
real-world paragraphs used the Bain pattern. This minority was 23 percent of “contemporary expository paragtaphs” (Developing Writing Skills, 1981, p.78).
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West et al fail to cite their source for this information. Do you have URLs for it, or for sources making the same or similar claims?

Paul @ PBW.com April 12th, 2010

Thanks for your input. You may be looking for the famous Richard Braddock article in which he disputed the frequency and placement of topic sentences in paragraphs. Braddock in short, disputed Bain’s rules.
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For me, it’s always been pretty clear that “paragraph rules” are more like guidelines and a helpful way to explain paragraphs.
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This does not detract from Bain’s contribution to our understanding of paragraphs. Knowledge is built on the shoulders of giants. I love Bain’s definition of a paragraph at the top of this page. It doesn’t consist of rules, it’s just a paragraph beautifully defined.

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