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What Makes a Paragraph a Paragraph?
If put a few sentences together, you do not necessarily have a paragraph if those sentences are not related to a topic. At least, you cannot say you have a good paragraph.
To create a paragraph, your sentences must be related to the same topic.
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In addition, all the sentences in a paragraph must say something specific about the topic. That is called the controlling idea of the paragraph. The controlling idea is what you have to say about the topic. It “controls” what ideas you can include in the paragraph, and which sentences do not belong in it.
Let’s look at some examples of a topic and possible controlling ideas.
Same topic, different controlling ideas
Topic: Organic food
“Organic food” is a very broad topic. You can write a whole book about it. If you add a controlling idea to this topic, you can limit what you can say about it when you write a paragraph.
Topic + controlling idea 1:
Organic food is expensive because of the way it is produced.
As you can see, you can write a paragraph about “organic food” now because you can focus your paragraph on how producing it can increase its price. For example, you can explain that it is produced in small quantities and involves more workers, which increases its price.
Topic + Controlling idea 2:
Organic food is better for you because it is produced without dangerous pesticides.
Again, this would be a good idea for a paragraph because it focuses on one clear message or idea about the topic: how using no pesticides makes organic food better for you. In your paragraph, you could explain the connection between pesticides and your health, for example.
The above is just an example. You may disagree that organic food is really better you. If so, you can write a paragraph using a controlling idea 3.
Topic + controlling idea 3:
Organic food is not healthier for you than non-organic food.
See? When you change the controlling idea, you are still writing a paragraph about the topic (organic food), but now you “control” or limit the content of your paragraph to the controlling idea.
Let’s look at another set of examples below.
Another topic, different controlling ideas
Think of paragraphs you could write using the following controlling ideas about this topic:
Topic + controlling idea 1: Smartphones are the most beneficial product created in modern history.
Topic + controlling idea 2: Smartphones have made us lazy thinkers because we no longer have to remember information.
Topic + controlling idea 3: Smartphones can be used as educational tools in the classroom.
Topic + controlling idea 4: Smartphones interfere with learning in the classroom.
How to Write a Good Paragraph
Putting it all together, here are some simple steps to write a good, coherent paragraph.
- Make sure you have a single topic.
- Define what you want to say about the topic by using a controlling idea.
- Plan the ideas you want to include to support your topic and controlling idea. Make sure each detail supports both the topic and the controlling idea. If you think of something that is not related to both, leave it out of the paragraph; maybe you need a new paragraph for that information.
- Write your paragraph, keeping an eye on the topic and controlling idea.
Dispelling the 3-sentence Paragraph Myth (or is it 5?)
When you ask a language student what a paragraph is, they often say that a paragraph is a group of 3 sentences. Sometimes they say it must be 5. In fact, it does not matter how many sentences you put together. To have a well built paragraph, you must have one or more sentences that create a coherent unit; the sentence or sentences must say something about a single topic.
Of course, we mostly see paragraphs with multiple sentences. This further reinforces the myth that paragraphs must have a minimum number of sentences.
Check Your Understanding
Examine Paragraph 1 below. It is not a good paragraph because two sentences in it make the paragraph incoherent. Which two sentences do not belong in it?
1 My sister, Anna, is very talented. 2 When she was 4 years old, she could already read children’s books. 3 She finished high school when she was 15 and went to college to study art at the University of Texas (UT). 4 UT offers bachelor’s degrees in several fields of study. 5 By the time Anna finished her second year in art, she was already exhibiting her work in famous art galleries. 6 When she finished her bachelor’s degree, she got married to Tom, whom she met during a trip to Dallas.
Sentence 1 presents the topic (the writer’s sister, Anna) and the controlling idea (is very talented). This sentence limits the ideas you can write in the paragraph for it to be a good, coherent paragraph.
Sentence 2 is a good sentence to create a paragraph. It tells you how talented Anna is.
Sentence 3 gives you another example of Anna’s gifts. Not many people finish high school and go to college when they are 15 years old.
Sentence 4 is about the University of Texas. Wait! What UT offers has nothing to do with Anna’s talents! This idea makes this paragraph incoherent. It must be excluded from the paragraph.
Sentence 5 is another example of how incredibly talented Anna is.
Sentence 6 is about Anna, but it has nothing to do with how talented she is. It must be excluded from the paragraph..
Now examine Paragraph 2 below. Which sentence does not belong in it?
1 Emails have been around for several decades. 2 Yet, many people still make mistakes when writing professional email messages. 3 For example, a professional email message should start with a greeting such as “Good morning” or “Hello, everyone.” 4 A message with spelling and grammar errors comes across as unprofessional and careless.5 Email makes communication among coworkers quick in today’s fast-paced workplace.6 Finally, a professional message should end with a simple “Thank you” or “Regards, and the sender’s signature.
Sentence 1 introduces the topic, and Sentence 2 makes the main idea of the paragraph clear: people are bad at writing professional email messages.
Sentences 3, 4, and 6 support that one point.
Sentence 5 is the problem. It makes the paragraph incoherent. The paragraph is not about the benefits of email messages in the workplace. If you want to discuss that, you need a different paragraph.
Note Topics and Controlling Ideas
This lesson about paragraphs, topics, and controlling ideas describes a model paragraph or a “perfect” paragraph. When you read, however, you may find paragraphs that do not have a main idea sentence (that is, a sentence with the topic and the controlling idea) in it. Yet, if you read the paragraph carefully, you will see that it has a clear topic and that the writer has a clear controlling idea.
Sometimes writers do not write in the paragraph that sentence with the topic and controlling idea. In that case, the main idea of the paragraph is implied. The main idea is still clear because the details in the paragraph tell you what the topic is and what the writer is saying about the topic.
This is a writing lesson, not a reading one. The important thing to get from this is that, when you write a coherent paragraph, you should make sure that you have a topic and that you limit your supporting ideas to a clear idea about the topic (that is, the controlling idea).
If you are a novice writers, it is a good idea to include a main idea sentence (stating the topic and controlling idea) in each of your paragraphs even though a paragraph does not have to have one. Doing so helps you plan, organize, and write your paragraphs.
If you are taking a writing course, your instructor will probably require you to write main idea sentences in your paragraphs so you can learn how they work. If you are unsure if they are required, ask your instructor for clarification.
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