What Makes a Paragraph a Paragraph?
If put a few sentences together, even if you format it to “look” like a paragraph, you do not necessarily have a paragraph.
To create a good paragraph, your sentences must be related to the same topic.
A paragraph must have a topic. 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 of the paragraph. It is called a “controlling idea” because it “controls” or limits 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.
Set of Examples 1
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 how it is produced.
Now you can write a paragraph about “organic food” 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, and how the lack of these chemicals makes organic food better for you.
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.
For this controlling idea, you would only include in your paragraph information that supports the idea that is organic food is no better for you than non-organic food.
Let’s look at another set of examples below.
Set of Examples 2
Topic: Online Courses
Topic + controlling idea 1: Online courses have many advantages.
A paragraph around this topic and controlling idea would simply list the advantages of online courses.
Topic + controlling idea 2: Online courses have both advantages and disadvantages.
A paragraph around this topic and controlling idea would list advantages and disadvantages.
Topic + controlling idea 3: Online courses are not for everyone.
A paragraph around this topic and controlling idea would explain why online courses are not for everyone.
Dispelling the 3-sentence Paragraph Myth (or is it 5?)
For whatever reason, when you ask language students how many sentences a paragraph should have, they generally say they should have at least 3 sentences—sometimes they say 5. Actually, it does not matter how many sentences you put together as long as the paragraph is well built and is coherent. You can even have one-sentence paragraphs.
Paragraphs with multiple sentences are the most common, but that is simply because we typically have more to say about a topic than just one or two sentences—not because there is some unbreakable rule that you must have a certain number of sentences.
In addition, if you write a paragraph with only a couple of sentences, your readers will probably have many questions. As a result, we end up writing multiple sentences so our paragraph is very clear.
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?
Paragraph 1 — Which two sentences do not belong?
1My sister, Anna, is very talented.
2When she was 4 years old, she could already read children’s books.
3She finished high school when she was 15 and went to college to study art at the University of Texas (UT).
4UT offers bachelor’s degrees in several fields of study.
5By the time Anna finished her second year in art, she was already exhibiting her work in famous art galleries.
6When 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, so it must 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. One sentence does not belong in it.
Paragraph 2 — Which sentence does not belong?
1Emails have been around for several decades.
2Yet, many people still make mistakes when writing professional email messages.
3For example, a professional email message should start with a greeting such as “Good morning” or “Hello, everyone.” 4A message with spelling and grammar errors comes across as unprofessional and careless.
5Email makes communication among coworkers quick in today’s fast-paced workplace.
6Finally, 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.
How to Write a Good Paragraph
Putting it the above information together, here are some steps to write a good, coherent paragraph.
Steps for a good, coherent paragraph
Select a single, well defined topic.
Define what you want to say about the topic. Write your topic and controlling idea.
Plan the ideas you want to include in your paragraph to support your topic and controlling idea. Be sure that each detail is about the topic and directly related to the controlling idea.
If you think of something that is not related to both the topic and the controlling idea, leave it out of the paragraph; maybe you need a new paragraph for that information.
Write your paragraph to support your idea (topic and controlling idea).
Practice 1. Identify sentences that do not belong in a 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.
When a good paragraph does not have that sentence written in it, we say that the main idea is implied. The main idea is clear because the details in the paragraph show you what the topic is and what the writer is saying about the topic.
When you write a coherent paragraph, it is important to ensure that you have a specific topic and that you limit your supporting ideas to a clear idea about the topic (that is, the controlling idea).
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