January 01, 2017

On the Papers: The Point of a Paragraph and Where to Find It: The Construction of the English Paragraph, Part IV

George D. Gopen

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“The issue states what the paragraph will concern, while the point lets you know why the paragraph was written.” I have been exploring English paragraph structure for three essays in this series, trying to explain how a paragraph’s “issue” (1) may take one, two, or three sentences to state, and (2) is a different concept from the paragraph’s “point.” In this fourth essay, we turn our attention to where in a paragraph the reader expects to encounter its point.

Must every paragraph have a point? No. Many a fine and necessary paragraph merely narrates: “This happened; then that happened; etc.” We can call these “narrative paragraphs.” They exist so that enough of a story may be told in order for the writer later on to be able to make a point.

Aside from narrative paragraphs, do all other paragraphs have to state a point explicitly? It is most often—not always—a good idea to state a point instead of merely implying a point. Sometimes it is impolitic or unnecessary or unkind to be blunt enough about a point to state it in a single sentence; but if you care that your reader understand your point, you are best to articulate it explicitly and concisely.

But you have to go further than that. It is not enough to drop your point just somewhere in your paragraph; you would do well to place it in a structural location where readers are most likely to look for it. With all the reader expectations I have been exploring through the previous 21 articles in this series, I have been able to locate for you a specific and unique place where readers look for certain kinds of information. Whose story is this sentence? Look to the grammatical subject. What is going on in this sentence? Look to its verb. What is the most important piece of information in this sentence? Check out any moment of full syntactic closure—at a colon, semicolon, or period. Paragraphs, however, are different, where the placement of their point is concerned. This is the only reader expectation that comes equipped with a fallback expectation: If it’s not here, then go look there. Both the “here” and the “there” depend on the nature of a paragraph’s structure.

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