March 01, 2016

On the Papers: What’s at Issue? The Construction of the English Paragraph, Part I

For schoolkids, the topic-sentence model of writing is a good way to learn that structure exists. For professionals, it is a lie.

George D. Gopen

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Most people educated in this country were taught that a proper paragraph contained five sentences: The first is the “topic sentence,” which states the issue and point of the whole paragraph; the fifth is the “conclusion,” which, in the sixth grade, meant a repetition of the topic sentence; and the middle three are the “body”—not a development of thought, but just three examples that support the topic sentence. Go look at the structure of 100 paragraphs in any legal document: You will be hard pressed to find a single one that adheres to this topic sentence model. For schoolkids, it is a good way to learn that structure exists. For professionals, it is a lie.

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