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Paragraph Structure


By Susan K. Keenan, Ed.D.
Department of English
National technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

A "paragraph" is defined as a group of sentences that form a distinct subdivision of a larger whole (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1968). In reality, a paragraph is much more than that. Paragraphs can, and in many situations, do exist independently of an essay, chapter, or book. These are called "stand-alone paragraphs." Beyond their stand-alone ability, paragraphs are much more complex than merely a group of sentences, as indicated in the above definition. Consider the following:

I got cold. Last winter was mild. That book is new. I exercised every day. I learned how to raise body heat.

Despite the fact that there are four sentences above, and despite the fact that they are placed in proximal location rather than in list form, these sentences do not constitute a paragraph. What is missing is an overriding unity. This unity can be established loosely by means of transitions, which delineate relations between ideas.

Because last winter was mild, I exercised every day. Still, sometimes I got cold. Then I read a new book and I learned how to raise body heat.

While the above sentences now demonstrate some relation to each other, they still do not constitute a paragraph. A paragraph must demonstrate unity through a central idea, called the "topic sentence." Once the topic sentence has been established, the sentences that follow, or those forming the body of the paragraph, must support this central idea. That is to say, these sentences, which are details and/or examples, must relate directly to the topic sentence and, in doing so, may also relate to each other.

Paragraphs, then, are the smallest units of written discourse that develop a central idea through related sentences. As such, they are essentials of written communication if a writer is to successfully express more than isolated thoughts. Beyond their status as organized sentences relating to a central idea, paragraphs are a microcosm of a larger and more complex form of discourse, the "essay" (see the SEA Site module, Basic Essay Structure). Yet to conquer the paragraph is to be well on one's way to conquering the essay because, though they vary in length, the structure of both the paragraph and the essay is basically the same.

Paragraphs generally are composed of the following parts:

1. A topic sentence which contains the paragraph topic and a controlling idea

2. Body sentences which give details and/or examples for the topic sentence

3. A concluding sentence

Contents of This Module

  • The Topic Sentence
  • Placement of the Topic Sentence
  • The Paragraph Body
  • The Concluding Sentence
  • Paragraph Organization Specific to Various Rhetorical Modes
  • Research Findings and Implications
  • Guided Practice
  • Action Steps

Major Considerations

1. The paragraph is the building block for essays.

2. A well-written paragraph demonstrates the writer's ability to focus on a specific topic

and generate sequential details that convey his or her ideas to the reader.

3. Understanding the structure of paragraphs better enables the reader to anticipate

organization, thereby enhancing understanding.

4. Producing well-organized paragraphs poses a challenge to many deaf students.

5. The ability to produce well-organized paragraphs is essential to the academic success of deaf students.