Structure of the Paragraph Body
The body of the paragraph is the support for the topic sentence. Supporting sentences are details or examples, or a combination of both, which reinforce, explain, or discuss the writer's perspective on the topic. Not all body sentences provide direct support for the controlling idea, however. Some sentences serve to further delineate or explain a point of support.
A basic outline for a stand-alone paragraph looks like this:
A. Supporting sentence
B. Supporting sentence
C. Supporting sentence
Concluding sentence and final thought
In this outline sentences A, B, and C provide support for the topic sentence. The details, listed under these supporting sentences provide further explanation of the points of support. The following sample paragraph adheres to this general structure:
Even though I didn't relish the idea of being in New York City, I decided to attend graduate school there for several important reasons. First of all, Columbia University allowed individualization in programming. Perhaps most important, I learned on my first visit to the university that the professor who would be my advisor would allow me to do much of my work in Rochester and travel to New York only for special meetings. The university also accepted work I had previously done and applied it to my degree. Besides the coursework, I knew and respected the two professors who would be my advisors. Both people have taught and researched in the field for many years. They have much information to share and I knew I could learn a lot from them. Despite my reservations about spending time in New York City, I found that once I became familiar with the part of Manhattan where Columbia is located, I could get around easily. Streets and avenues run perpendicular to one another, so it was difficult to become lost. When I became braver, I learned to take the subways as well as the buses instead of taxis and saved myself a lot of money. Even though at first I had doubts about studying in New York, it was a good decision.
Topic sentence: Even though I didn't relish the idea of being in New York City, I decided to attend graduate school there for several important reasons.
A. Supporting sentence: Columbia University allowed individualization of programming.
- Detail: I could work in Rochester and travel to New York only for special meetings.
- Detail: …accepted work from other programs
B. Supporting sentence: I knew and respected my two advisors.
- Detail: Both have researched in the field for many years.
- Detail: They had much information to share.
- Detail: I could learn a lot from them.
C. Supporting sentence: I found I could get around easily in New York.
- Detail: …difficult to become lost because the city streets and avenues are perpendicular to each other.
- Detail: I learned to use subways and buses.
Concluding sentence and final thought: Even though at first I had doubts about studying in New York, it was a good decision.
Notice that there are three statements that support the topic sentence and that each of these statements has details that explain more completely. Notice also that the topic sentence and concluding sentence are similar in structure and meaning.
Unity in the Paragraph Body
"Unity" is the degree of relationship among the sentences in the body of the paragraph. Paragraph unity requires the thoughtfully planned development of the controlling idea through details and/or examples. This is achieved when each sentence clearly connects to the topic and possibly to the other sentences as well. The relation to the topic sentence is important because any sentence that strays from the topic blurs the purpose set forth in the controlling idea. The following paragraph contains two sentences that drift from the stated topic:
The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. In order to activate this feature, simply press the button on the top of the camera until the "eye" icon is highlighted. Photographers don't need to be concerned with any of the other icons in this position. These icons allow for manual control of shutter speed and focus. When the red-eye feature is turned on, a small light will shine into the subject's eye. This light causes the iris to close, thus reducing reflection, and the chances of red-eye.
In the above paragraph, the topic sentence is The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. For unity in the paragraph, all subsequent sentences should relate to the red-eye reduction feature. The following sentences stray from the stated topic:
Photographers don't need to be concerned with any of the other icons in this position.
These icons allow for manual control of shutter speed and focus.
Coherence in the Body of the Paragraph
"Coherence" is the ability of sentences to flow naturally one to the other, forming an integrated discussion rather than a series of separate ideas. This is usually accomplished in two ways:
1. by the use of transitions
2. by following an order logical to a specific rhetorical pattern, or composition type.
Transitions are words and phrases that connect the ideas in one sentence to the idea in another sentence. They smooth the movement between sentences and show relationships. This decreases the chance for reader misunderstanding. Transitions come in many forms (see, also, the SEA Site module Expressing Logical Relationships):
A. They can be "sentence connectors": on the other hand, similarly, then, furthermore, in addition, moreover, besides. For example:
Most simple birthday cakes need no additional support. On the other hand, wedding cakes with their many layers are almost certain to collapse unless they have a solid infrastructure.
B. They can be "coordinating conjunctions": and, but, so, or, yet.
The point-and-shoot camera may be simple to use, but the photographer lacks the control he has with an SLR camera.
C. They can be "subordinate conjunctions": even though, because, although, while, since, unless, whether.
Even though a laptop computer is small, it has all of the same features of the larger desk-top model.
In addition to the use of transitions, coherence is established through the presentation of ideas in a logical order. Logical order is the degree to which the ideas within the body of the paragraph flow from one to the other. There are three general kinds of order that can be used when organizing ideas for a paragraph. These are:
1. Chronological order
2. Spatial order
3. Emphatic order
In "chronological order," the information is organized in time. Here the writer states what happened first, second, third, and last. Chronological organization is typical of, although not limited to, narrative writing. The following paragraph is an example of one organized chronologically:
I had several frightening experiences on my first night in Tokyo. The first scary thing happened when I walked into the airport. Even though I have traveled extensively before, I have always been able to read the signs. This time was different. When I looked around the airport, I realized that I couldn't even tell where to go because I could not understand any of the signs. When I finally got through customs, I took a huge bus to the downtown airport. On the way I saw many soldiers carrying rifles and it made me nervous. When the bus finally arrived at the downtown airport I had to look for a taxi. Because it was now very late, there were only a few around. Finally I found one and gave the driver written directions to the convent where I would be staying. The driver looked angry and I became uneasy again. An hour later we arrived at the convent. The driver took my bags to the door and knocked loudly, but no one answered. He said something to me in Japanese which, of course, I didn't understand. Then he pointed to a telephone nearby and to my purse. I opened it and gave him some money. I waited nervously while he made a call. A few moments later he took me back to the door of the convent where Sister Suzanne was now waiting. Her friendly face made me forget the bad experiences I had had that night.
"Spatial organization" utilizes the concept of space. The information presented in the paragraph, then, is organized from a start point to an end point, proceeding logically from one to the other. Spatial organization is frequently used in descriptions where the writer moves in an orderly manner form one feature to the next. The following is an example of a paragraph organized spatially.
The inside of Bill's refrigerator was horrible. On the top shelf was a three week old carton of milk. Next to it sat a slice of melon that had started to get moldy. To the right of the melon sat the remains of a macaroni and cheese dinner that had been served a week earlier. On the shelf below was a slice of cake from his sister's birthday party. Though there was food, none of it was edible.
The above paragraph is ordered spatially. The reader is drawn from the left of the refrigerator to the right and from the top shelf to the one below.
"Emphatic order" utilizes the concept of importance. The coherence of the paragraph is established in one of two ways: (a) from least to most important, or (b) from most to least important. The following is an example of a paragraph using emphatic order:
After looking at all the brochures and talking to several salesmen, I decided to purchase an SLR camera. For several years I had been dissatisfied with the results I was getting from my point-and-shoot camera. The framing was imprecise and the focus was not always accurate. I had planned a vacation to an area that promised many fabulous photo opportunities, and I wanted to capture each one with accuracy. But the most important reason I decided on the SLR camera was the great versatility it offered.
In the above paragraph, the organization moves from the least important idea (dissatisfaction with the results of the point-and-shoot camera) to the most important idea (the versatility offered with the SLR camera).
Coherence, then, in paragraph writing is established through the use of chronological, spatial, or emphatic organization.
In addition to these three kinds of organization, there are those specific to "rhetorical patterns," or kinds of written composition. This means that certain kinds of writing-persuasive, for example-will follow a kind of organizational pattern specific to argumentative (or persuasive) rhetoric. The following are the kinds of organizational patterns used in specific rhetorical modes (Atkinson & Longman, 1992; Trimmer, 1992):
(a) subject development-used in definitions, explanations, narratives, or examples
The information presented in any of the four organizational patterns above must itself be ordered chronologically, spatially, or emphatically. This order allows the reader to move logically through the material presented. For example, "enumerative order" (also known as "partitive order") simply means that divisions of the topic are proposed in an opening statement and subsequent sentences identify each part. The order in which those parts are presented, however, must not be random, but rather must follow a predetermined sequencing pattern-chronological, spatial, or emphatic.
The section on rhetorical organization provides a more detailed explanation of organizational patterns specific to rhetorical mode.