Topic Sentences and Main Ideas

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Topic Sentences and Main Ideas
An effective paragraph generally focuses on one main idea. The main idea of a paragraph is the one thought the writer wants you to understand and remember. A good way to achieve paragraph unity is to state the main idea clearly in one sentence – the topic sentence – and relate all other sentences in the paragraph to that idea. Like the thesis for an essay, the topic sentence includes a topic and a comment on that topic.

  1. Where is the main idea found in a paragraph?

A topic sentence often appears at the beginning of a paragraph, as well as the end, but it may also come in the middle of the paragraph – or it may be implied rather than stated directly.


2. The main idea directly stated in the first sentence:

In the United States, circumstances often force people to live alone. For example, many high school and college graduates move away from their hometowns and continue their educations or take jobs. Most schools assign roommates, but employers usually expect people to take care of their own living arrangements. Also, married people might feel they will always be together, but currently one out of two marriages end in divorce. Another statistic concerns the death of a spouse. Estimates are that in the next twenty years eight out of ten married women will become widows, usually late in life.

3. The main idea directly stated in the last sentence:

During the visit, Dee takes the pictures, every one of them, including the one of the house that she used to live in and hate. She takes the churn top and dasher, both whittled out of a tree by one of Mama’s uncles. She tries to take Grandma Dee’s quilts. Mama and Maggie use these inherited items every day, not only appreciating their heritage but living it too. Dee, on the other hand, wants these items only for decorative use, thus forsaking and ignoring their real heritage.

4. The main idea directly stated in the first sentence and repeated in the last sentence of a paragraph for emphasis:

Many of the difficulties we experience in relationships are caused by the unrealistic expectations we have of each other. Think about it. Women are expected to feel comfortable doing most of the sacrificing. They are supposed to stay fine, firm, and forever twenty-two while doing double duty, in the home and in the workplace. The burden on men is no easier. They should be tall, handsome, and able to wine and dine the women. Many women go for the glitter and then expect these men to calm down once in a relationship and become faithful, sensitive, supportive, and loving. Let’s face it. Both women and men have been unrealistic. It’s time we develop a new sensitivity toward each other and ask ourselves what it is we need from each other that is realistic and fair.

5. The main idea directly stated in a sentence located in the middle of a paragraph:

For years I have struggled with my writing skills. My inability to master correct grammar as well as my struggle to formulate coherent ideas have made my compositions very dull and ineffective. This year, however, I decided to visit the Learning Center to help improve my skills. I found, to my surprise, that the real key to writing a good paper is to have a passion for the things about which you are writing. When a person becomes interested in his or her subject of composition, he or she will make a better attempt at organizing ideas and giving them a strong coherence.

6. Some paragraphs will contain sentences that imply the main idea and do not specifically state it in any one sentence:

In winter the warehouse is cold and damp. There is no heat. The large steel doors that line the warehouse walls stay open most of the day. In the cold months, wind, rain, and snow blow across the floor. In the summer the warehouse becomes an oven. Dust and sand from the runways mix with the toxic fumes of fork lifts, leaving a dry, stale taste in your mouth. The high windows above the doors are covered with a thick, black dirt that kills the sun. The men work in shadows with the constant roar of jet engines blowing dangerously in their ears.

Here the implied topic sentence might be stated as Working conditions in the warehouse are uncomfortable, dreary, and hazardous to one’s health.

7. How do I determine the main idea?

The best technique for finding main ideas consists of asking two questions, placing the answers to these two questions into one concise sentence and thereby discerning the main idea. Specifically:

a. Determine the subject of a paragraph. Ask yourself who, or what, is this paragraph about.

b. What is distinctive about the subject? What does this paragraph tell us about the subject?

c. Present the answers to the above questions in a single sentence—and you have the main idea.

Adapted from: The St. Martin’s Handbook, sixth edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008

Center for Transformative Learning

Peer Consultation

Stephenson Hall CPO 2136 x3404

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