Introduction to paragraphs

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By Kenneth Richter (2009)

IN THIS UNIT: Intro to Paragraphs

Topic Sentences

Supporting Sentences

Concluding Sentences

A paragraph is a group of related sentences that discuss one (and usually only one) main idea. The number of sentences in a paragraph is unimportant; however, the paragraph should be long enough to develop the main idea clearly.
A paragraph may stand by itself. In academic writing, you often write a paragraph to answer a test question. A paragraph, however, is generally part of a longer work, such as an essay or a book.
Paragraphs include a (1) topic sentence, (2) supporting sentences, and sometimes also a (3) concluding sentence.
The following model contains all the elements of a good paragraph.
Gold, a precious metal, is prized for two important characteristics. First of all, gold a lustrous beauty that is resistant to corrosion. Therefore, it is suitable for jewelry, coins, and ornamental purposes. Gold never needs to be polished and will remain beautiful forever. For a example, a Macedonian coin remains as untarnished today as the day it was made 25 centuries ago. Another important characteristic of gold is its usefulness to industry and science. For many years, it has been used in hundreds of industrial applications, such as photography and dentistry. The most recent use of gold is in astronaut’s suits. Astronauts wear gold-plated heat shields for protection when they work in space. In conclusion, gold is treasured not only for its beauty but also for its utility.

EXERCISE 1: Paragraph Elements
Re-read the paragraph above and then answer the following questions:
1. What is the topic of the paragraph?

2. What two points does the writer make about the topic?

3. What examples does the writer use to support each point?

4. In which two sentences does the writer say that there are two main points?

Other Kinds of Paragraphs
Let’s look at another example of a paragraph, this one by David Foster Wallace in his essay “Authority and American Usage”:
Fact: There are all sorts of cultural / geographical dialects of American English -- Black English, Latino English, Rural Southern, Urban Southern, Standard Upper-Midwest, East-Texas Bayou, Boston Blue-Collar, on and on. Everyone knows this. What not everyone knows -- especially not certain prescriptivists -- is that many of these dialects have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars, and that some of these dialects’ usage norms actually make more linguistic/aesthetic sense than do their Standard counterparts.

-- “Authority and American Usage,” in Consider the Lobster

by David Foster Wallace
This doesn’t seem to follow the rules at all. There’s no topic sentence as such. The first sentence SEEMS to be the topic sentence, followed by supporting evidence. But, in fact, that sentence is not the POINT of the paragraph. The point of the paragraph is the LAST sentence, and so should be the topic, except that here Wallace provides no supporting information.
The point here is that there are a million ways to write a good paragraph, and the better writer one is, the more likely it is that one will play and experiment with the language. But before one can get to that point, one must FIRST completely dominate the “standard” or “conventional” forms first. As jazz great Charlie Parker noted:
“You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail ... Learn everything you can about music, then forget everything you've heard."

-- Charlie Parker, jazz saxophonist and composer

It’s the same for any discipline. So for the rest of the semester, we’re going to be looking at standard, conventional ways of writing. Once you’ve mastered those, you can forget all the rules and “just wail.”
(1) Topic Sentences

Not too general, not too specific

Which of the following would make the best topic sentence for a paragraph on the origin of English words?

The slang expression so long (meaning “good-bye”) is probably a corruption of the Arabic salaam.
English has been influenced by other languages.
The Arabic origin of many English words is not always obvious.

EXERCISE 2: Topic Sentences
Read the following sentences. In each group, which sentence would make the best topic sentence? Which sentences are too general? Which ones are too specific? Which ones might make good supporting sentences?
1. ____ The history of astronomy is interesting.

2. ____ Ice age people recorded the appearance of new moons by making scratches in animal bones.

3. ____ Stonehenge in Britain was built 3,500 years ago to track the movement of the sun.

4. ____ Ancient people observed and recorded lunar and solar events in different ways.

1. ____ It is hard to know which foods are safe to eat nowadays.

2. ____ In some large ocean fish, there are high levels of mercury.

3. ____ Undercooked chicken and hamburger may carry bacteria.

4. ____ Food safety is an important issue.

1. ____ Hybrid automobiles are more economical to operate than gasoline-powered cars.

2. ____ The new hybrid automobiles are very popular.

3. ____ Hybrid cars have good fuel economy because a computer under the hood decides to run the electric motor, the small gasoline engine, or the two together.

4. ____ The new hybrid automobiles are popular because of their fuel economy.

1. ____ The North American Catawba Indians of the Southeast and the Tlingit of the Northwest both see the rainbow as a kind of bridge between heaven and earth.

2. ____ A rainbow seen from an airplane is a complete circle.

3. ____ Many cultures interpret rainbows in positive ways.

4. ____ Rainbows are beautiful.

5. ____ Almost everyone has heard of the Irish myth that you can find a pot of gold at a rainbow’s end.

EXERCISE 3: Topic Sentences
Remember that the topic sentence is the most general statement in a paragraph. Read the following scrambled paragraphs and decide which is the topic sentence.
1. ____ A note/memo function lets you make quick notes to yourself.

2. ____ Other capabilities include word processing, spreadsheets, and e-mail.

3. ____ A voice recorder that uses a built-in microphone and speaker words like a tape-recorder.

4. ____ Basic tools include a calendar to keep track of appointments, an address and phone number book, to-do lists, and a calculator.

5. ____ MP3 playback lets you listen to digital music files, and a picture viewer lets you look at digital photos.

6. ____ Most personal digital assistants (PDAs) have tools for basic tasks as well as for multimedia functions.

7. ____ A few models also include a built-in digital camera and keyboard.

1. ____ Eight years after Sputnik, the United States caught up by becoming the first nation to land a man on the moon.

2. ____ The Europeans have joined the competition, vowing to land European astronauts on the moon by 2025 and on Mars by 2035.

3. ____ The number of nations competing in the “space race” has grown since the early days of space exploration.

4. ____ China joined the competition in 2003 when it launched Shenzou 5.

5. ____ Initially, the former Soviet Union took the lead when it sent the first man into Earth orbit in the spaceship Vostok I in 1961.

6. ____ For almost 50 years, the United States and Russia were the only competitors in the contest to explore space using manned spacecraft.

1. ____ Another important change was that people had the freedom to live and work wherever they wanted.

2. ____ The earliest significant change was for farming families, who were no longer isolated.

3. ____ The final major change brought by the automobile was the building of superhighways, suburbs, huge shopping centers, and theme parks like Disney World in Florida.

4. ____ The automobile revolutionized the way of life in the United States.

5. ____ The automobile enabled them to drive to towns and cities comfortably and conveniently.

6. ____ In fact, people could work in a busy metropolitan city and drive home to the quiet suburbs.

1. ____ In time, this melted part rises as magma.

2. ____ The formation of a volcanic eruption is a dramatic series of events.

3. ____ As the plate sinks, friction and Earth’s heat cause part of it to melt.

4. ____ The magna produces heat, steam, and pressure.

5. ____ First of all, most volcanoes are formed where two plates collide.

6. ____ Then one of the plates is forced under the other and sinks.

7. ____ When the heat, steam, and pressure from the magma finally reach the surface of the Earth, a volcanic eruption occurs.

The 2 parts of a topic sentence: Topic + Controlling Idea
The topic sentence states the main idea of the paragraph. It not only names the topic of the paragraph, but it also limits the topic to one specific area that can be discussed completely in the space of a single paragraph. The part of the topic sentence that announces the specific area to be discussed is called the controlling idea. The controlling idea limits or controls the topic to a specific area that you can discuss in the space of a single paragraph.




a precious metal,

is prized for two important characteristics.

Driving on freeways


skills and alertness.

Registering for classes

can be

frustrating for new students.

The rise of “indie” films

is due to

several factors.

Convenience foods


easy to prepare.

What is the topic and controlling idea of the following sentence?

Immigrants have contributed many delicious foods to U.S. cuisine.

Analyze the following sentence; is this a good topic sentences or not? Why?

Independent films are characterized by experimental techniques, low production costs, and provocative themes.

EXERCISE 4: Controlling Ideas
Circle the topic and underline the controlling idea in each of the following sentences. Careful: The topic is not always the first element in the sentence!
1. Driving on freeways requires skill and alertness.

2. Driving on freeways requires strong nerves.

3. Driving on freeways requires an aggressive attitude.

4. The Caribbean island of Trinidad attracts tourists because of its calypso music.

5. Spectacular beaches make Puerto Rico a tourist paradise.

6. Moving away from home can be a stressful experience for young people.

7. Many religious rules arose from the health needs of ancient times.

8. A major problem for many students is the high cost of tuition and books.

9. Participating in class discussions is a problem for several different groups of students.

10. In my opinion, television commercials for cosmetics lie to women.

11. Owning an automobile is a necessity for me.

12. It is an expensive luxury to own an automobile in a large city.

13. Taste and appearance are both important in Japanese cuisine.

(a) Not too general, not too specific

(b) Topic + Controlling Idea
Remember these two rules for topic sentences. Write good topic sentences for each of the following paragraphs.
1) Topic Sentence: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
English speakers relaxing at home, for example, may put on kimonos, which a Japanese word. English speakers who live in a warm climate may take an afternoon siesta on an outdoor patio without realizing that these are Spanish words. In their gardens, they may enjoy the fragrance of jasmine flowers, a words that came into English from Persian. They may even relax on a chaise while snacking on yogurt, words of French and Turkish origin, respectively. At night, they may shampoo their hair and put on pajamas, words from the Hindi language of India.

2) Topic Sentence: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In European universities, students are not required to attend classes. In fact, professors in Germany generally do not know the names of the students enrolled in their courses. In the United States, however, students are required to attend all classes and may be penalized if they do not. Furthermore, in the European system, students usually take just one comprehensive examination at the end of the entire four or five years of study. In the North American system, on the other hand, students usually have numerous quizzes, tests, and homework assignments, and they almost always have to take a final examination in each course at the end of the semester.

3) Topic Sentence: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

For example, the Eskimos, living in a treeless region of snow and ice, sometimes build temporary homes out of thick blocks of ice. People who live in deserts, on the other hand, use the most available materials at hand, mud or clay, which provides good insulation from the heat. In Northern Europe, Russia, and other areas of the world where forests are plentiful, people usually construct their homes out of wood. In the islands of the South Pacific, where there is an abundant supply of bamboo and palm, people use these tough, fibrous plants to build their homes.

Position of Topic Sentences

Topic sentences are usually the first sentence in a paragraph, although experienced writers sometimes put topic sentences in other locations.
What is the topic sentence in the following paragraphs?
1. Synonyms, words that have the same basic meaning, do not always have the same emotional meaning. For example, the words stingy and frugal both mean “careful with money.” However, calling someone stingy is an insult, but calling someone frugal is a compliment. Similarly, a person wants to be slender, but not skinny, aggressive but not pushy. Therefore, you should be careful in choosing words because many so-called synonyms are not really synonymous at all.
2. By the year 2010, a vaccine against the common cold will have been developed. By the same year, the first human will have been successfully cloned. By the year 2014, parents will be able to create designer children. Genetic therapy will be able to manipulate genes for abilities, intelligence, and hair, eye, and skin color. By 2020, most diseases will be able to be diagnosed and treated at home, and by 2030, cancer and heart disease will have been wiped out. These are just a few examples of the medical miracles that are expected in the next few decades.
3. Homework is one of those necessary evils of being a student. The one sure way that a teacher knows how to measure your progress in his/her course is to assign homework that tests your knowledge of the information that is taught. Some instructors, however, seem to use homework as a way of reassuring themselves that they have "taught" the information to the students. Many students, aware of these ideas about homework, tend to treat homework as a chore, putting little or no thought into the work that is turned in. However, like any designated task, homework is a reflection not only on you as a student, but also on you as an individual. When an employer has to decide whether or not to hire you, he or she has to consider your ability to complete the demands of the working world. For many employers, the way that you handle your "homework" in college often indicates the way that you will handle your homework on the job. For example, often your grade in a class is determined by the quality of the homework that you do. That homework grade can be a significant part of your final grade for the course. In fact, many students can attest to an experience where the homework grade made the difference in their final course grade. Once you leave college and attempt to find a job, those homework grades translate into final GPAs for your major. Those final GPAs show up on resumes and job applications and employers look to see if you have done your "homework" in school as a key factor in determining if you will do your "homework" on the job.

Write three topic sentences for each of the following topics. In other words, give three controlling ideas for the same topic.

Topic: cell phones

Topic sentences: (1) Using a cell phone while driving can be dangerous.

(2) There are certain rules of cell phone manners that everyone should know.

(3) Cell phones have changed the way we communicate.
Topics: movies | word processors | your home town | advertising
(In groups) With your classmates, choose three topics that interest you the most. Write a topic sentence for each topic. Be sure to include a controlling idea.

(2) Supporting Ideas
Supporting sentences explain or prove the topic sentence. One of the biggest problems in student writing is that student writers often fail to support their ideas adequately. It’s important to use specific details to be thorough and convincing.
There are several kinds of specific supporting details: examples, statistics, and quotations.
Read the two paragraphs, below. Which is the better paragraph? Why?
(A) Running Red Lights
Although some people think that running red lights is a minor traffic violation, it can, in fact, become a deadly crime. Red light runners cause accidents all the time. Sometimes people are seriously injured and even killed. It is especially a problem in rush hour traffic. Everyone is in a hurry to get home, so drivers run red lights everywhere. The police do not do much about it because they are too busy. They only time they pay attention is when there is an accident, and then it is too late. In conclusion, running a red light is a serious offense.
(B) Running Red Lights
Although some people think that running red lights is a minor traffic violation, it can, in fact, become a deadly crime. Red light runners cause hundreds of accidents, including deaths and injuries, as well as millions of dollars in damages. Each year more than 900 people die, and nearly 200,000 are injured in crashes that involve running red lights (Moya & O'Malley, 1994). Motorists run red lights all the time. For example, in Fairfax, Virginia, a five-month-long survey at five busy intersections revealed that a motorist ran a red light every 20 minutes (Jongsma, 1989). Red light runners are seldom caught. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Communities don’t have the resources to allow police to patrol intersections as often as would be needed to ticket all motorists who run red lights” (Huerta- Macias, 1995, p. 9).

In Paragraph B, locate supporting sentences that use examples, statistics, and quotations.

EXERCISE 10: Analysis

Analyze the following paragraph. What is the topic sentence? Is this a strong topic sentence? Why or why not? Is the topic sentence supported by supporting sentences? If so, which ones? Do you find any errors in the logical organization of this paragraph? If so, mark them.

Multilingual children

Most children have the ability to learn more than one language. It has been proved that to be a bilingual person can lead you to a better and successful life. Some investigations have proven that a million children and teenagers speak other languages than their native one. For instance, in the United States many of the schools have bilingual programs. As a result of this, the number of speakers of two or more languages is expected to increase in some years. However, most children have speech problems when learning another language; this is caused by different reasons. Some of those reasons are: their first language influence, similarities in word sounds, and the time children can take to learn the language. After childhood, some parts of the brain turn out to be more rigid, and the development of alternative languages becomes more difficult.

Giving examples
(The following section shows how to use examples as support. Other types of support -- facts, statistics, and quotations – are covered in the following unit).
Examples are perhaps the easiest kind of supporting detail to use because one can often take examples from your own knowledge and experience. You don’t have to search the library of the Internet for supporting material. Furthermore, examples make your writing lively and interesting, and your reader is more likely to remember your point if you support it with a memorable example.

In ESL, personal examples are often used when talking about classroom experiences, student observations, personal growth as a teacher, etc. However, it is important to remember that in academic writing in general, personal examples are rarely if ever used. In academic writing, comments from other authors, findings from investigations, and other kinds of data are preferred. Therefore, be careful in your use of personal examples – think about the context and the purpose of your writing.

EXERCISE 11: Analysis
Read the following paragraph and then answer the questions, below.
Language and Perception
Although we all possess the same physical organs for sensing the world -- eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, noses for smelling, skin for feeling, and mouths for tasting -- our perception of the world depends to a great extent on the language we speak. According to a famous hypothesis proposed by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, language is like a pair of eyeglasses though which we “see” the world in a particular way. A classic example of the relationship between language and perception is the word snow. Eskimo languages have as many as 32 different words for snow. For instance, the Eskimos have different words for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed as hard as ice, slushy snow, wind-driven snow, and granular snow. The ancient Aztec languages in Mexico, in contrast, used only one word to mean snow, cold, and ice. Thus, if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct and we can perceive only things that we have words for, the Aztecs perceived snow, cold, and ice as one and the same phenomenon.
1. What is the main idea of the paragraph? Underline the part of the topic sentence that expresses the main idea.

2. What examples does the writer use to support this idea?

3. What words and phrases introduce the examples?
(3) The Concluding Sentence
A concluding sentence serves two purposes:
1. It signals the end of the paragraph

2. It leaves the reader with the most important ideas to remember. One can do this in two ways:

By summarizing the main points of the paragraph.

By repeating the topic sentence in different words.

A paragraph does not always need a concluding sentence. For single paragraphs, especially long ones, a concluding sentence is helpful to the reader because it is a reminder of the important points. However, a concluding sentence is not needed for every paragraph of a multi-paragraph essay.
You may want to begin your concluding paragraph with one of the signals in the list below. You may also end a paragraph without a formal signal or perhaps by using an expression like those in the column on the right.

End-of-Paragraph Signals Followed by a Comma

End-of-Paragraph Signals Not Followed by a Comma


In brief,


In short,




In conclusion,

In summary,

The evidence suggests that ...

There can be no doubt that ...

These examples show that ...

The foregoing demonstrates that ...

From the preceding, we can see that ...

We can see that ...

It can be argued, then, that ...

The above strongly suggests that ...


The models that follow demonstrate two ways of writing a concluding sentence. Read the texts below and then answer the questions that follow.
Greeting Cards
Have you noticed how many different kinds of greeting cards you can buy? In the old days, the local drugstore had one rack displaying maybe five or six basic kinds of cards. You could walk into the store and choose an appropriate card in five minutes or less. Nowadays, however, the display space for greeting cards is as big as a soccer field, and it may take an hour or two to hunt down exactly the right card with exactly the right message. There are at least 30 categories of birthday cards alone: birthday cards for different ages, for different relatives, for different genders, for dog owners, for cat owners, and so on. There are cards for getting a job, for retiring from a job, for acquiring a pet, for losing a pet, for becoming engaged, for breaking up. There are also greeting cards to send for no reason at all: “Thinking of you” or “Just because” cards. The newest type of card is the “encouragement card.” An encouragement card offers comforting thoughts and helpful advice to someone who is sad or distressed. In short, there is now a greeting card for every possible life event and for a few non-events as well.
A Hawaiian Legend
Native people create legends to explain unusual phenomena in their environment. A legend form the Hawaiian island of Kauai explains how the naupaka flower, a flower that grows on beaches there, got its unusual shape. The flower looks like half a small daisy -- there are petals on one side only. The legend says that the marriage of two young lovers on the island was opposed by both sets of parents. the parents found the couple together on the beach one day, and to prevent them from being together, one of the families moved to the mountains, separating the young couple forever. As a result, the naupaka flower separated into two halves; one half moved to the mountains, and the other half stayed near the beach. This story is a good example of a legend invented by native people to interpret the world around them.
1. Which concluding sentence summarizes the main points and which repeats the topic sentence in different words?
2. Would the following concluding sentences be acceptable? Why or why


  • In conclusion, we now have more variety of greeting cards to choose from, although they are also becoming more expensive

  • In conclusion, there are many other legends like this one in Hawaii.

Underline the topic sentence in each paragraph. Then, add a good concluding sentence to each, paraphrasing the topic sentence or summarizing the main points.
You can be a good conversationalist by being a good listener. When you are conversing with someone, pay close attention to the speaker’s words while looking at his or her face. Show your interest by smiling and nodding. Furthermore, do not interrupt while someone is speaking; it is impolite to do so. If you have a good story, wait until the speaker is finished. Also, watch your body language; it can affect your communication whether you are the speaker or the listener. For instance, do not sit slumped in a chair or make nervous hand and foot movements. Be relaxed and bend your body slightly forward to show interest in the person and the conversation.


Modern communication technology is driving workers in the corporate world crazy. They feel buried under the large number of messages they receive daily. In addition to telephone calls, office workers receive dozens of e-mail and voice mail messages daily. In one company, in fact, managers receive an average of 100 messages a day. Because they do not have enough time to respond to these messages during office hours, it is common for them to do so in the evenings or on weekends at home.


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