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Writing Right

Helping and assisting writers

May 13, 2010

Sentences, Paragraphs - how long and how many

Here I will talk about something very basic in writing, but something which seems to trouble many in these parts. For myself, it took me a while to understand that this particular matter could be a problem, and I want to make sure that we understand each other. It is about what a composition, a sentence, a story, and a paragraph is in English.

First about stories and sentences.

A lot of the people who have had to study to learn English seem unclear about what a sentence is. A sentence is generally confused with a "story" - a longer piece of text (made up of multiple sentences). Some of the reason for this is likely linguistic interference from the native language (and dictionaries, E-J and J-E published in Japan are often not clear on the concept either), but when you are trying to write in English you should really know, and be clear about, what a sentence is.

A sentence, it is a string of text that starts with a capital letter and ends with a period (a dot really, like this "."). This is of course not true some of the time, but most of the time it is a correct description of a sentence. As a result this story (the text you are reading here), has, so far, had eight sentences (and a title) and the sentence you are finishing reading now is sentence number eight.

A sentence, it is a string of text that starts with a capital letter and ends with a period.

Following the period at the end of a sentence (the "." that completes the sentence) there will generally be one more sentence, but no change of line! This is not always true however, but outside of literature (novels, poetry, and that kind of creative writing) it nearly always is true.

So, a sentence rarely appears alone, it is surrounded by other sentences that elaborate and puts into context what this sentence is saying.

You may have been taught "the five sentence patterns of English" in school. Please remember that those patterns were invented to make teaching convenient and when you have become acquainted with these five patterns you should not try to emulate them (they are just there to help you to understand how words in a sentence hang together - when you are lost). You are better off forgetting all about sentence patterns when you have some little feel for what makes sense in English. Writing requires you to tell what is on your mind, not to fit your ideas into any particular preset pattern.

Let me elaborate this previous and say that if you have a subject and a verb the arrangement of the other parts of a sentence is largely up to you, but you have to make sure that a reader will know what it is you are saying - if you wish to communicate.

Now about paragraphs, paragraphs are the sentences before and after a sentence. A paragraph starts with an indent (the space [blank part] before the first word on the left in the first line), then continues with a number of sentences focusing on one subject or topic. Again, literary/creative writing may be different, but in a report or a letter a paragraph provides the information that the writer wishes the reader to pay attention to about one matter.

So, it is wrong, like some people unfortunately do, to change lines (pressing the return key, 改行 in Japanese) after each period. You only change lines when you change topics. But you may be thinking, "I can put all I wish to say about a topic in one sentence, why worry about paragraphs or anything?" Read on to find out more.

. . . make each of your sentences at least ten words long.

The next matter is the length of a sentence. Here there are no rules, but you should make some for yourself till you are comfortable with writing in English.

One possible rule is to set a minimum number of words for your sentences. It may seem silly and too mechanical, but many very short sentences are difficult to digest for a reader. Try to make each of your sentences at least ten words long. With short little sentences you may write:

It was Friday. I had work to do from nine. I was a mile from the nearest bus stop.
or written as one sentence:
This Friday I had to be at work at nine, but I had a kilometer and a half to walk to the bus that would take me there.

Another example:

The survey was long. I could not administer it in class. The deadline became next week.
It was a long survey, too long for one class period, so I handed it out and asked everybody to bring it back the following week.

The second try, with just one sentence each, is not so great either perhaps, but at least it integrates all the information so the reader knows it is meant to hang together. Also the two longer sentences will be in their respective paragraphs, so (hopefully!) they will not appear alone without a context like here.

Maybe you think that ten words as a minimum is far too long, but ask around and find out what readers think and you will find that they appreciate the longer sentences. Of course, when you are just starting out writing in English eight or even seven words may be an easier target, but, like running practice, you will be able to do much better with just a little bit of training.

That was the minimum length. How about a maximum? I like to say five lines is as long as a sentence should be, but consider any sentence longer than three lines a candidate for dividing into two and your readers will thank you, and if you keep your paragraphs short, at most about ten or a dozen lines and half that number of sentences, you will be understood by many more readers.

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Some good advice here for teaching sentences/paragraphs. I was wondering if you
teach using the same language as you have
written here. Do you "explain" sentences/paragraphs? Or as I do demonstrate

Small point; Is it not now accepted that paragraph indentations have fallen out of use in all writing? That's what I tell my students.

Hi John,
Thanks for asking. This column is mainly for teachers of writing and people trying to write for publication. It is surprising that what I discuss is not quite clear for people with quite some language education under their belts, so while it is a mite silly to bring it up, spelling it out seems to clear this particular fog for some.
In a class I would not say a single thing before I saw the students breaking the "rules." Then I would indeed, like you, demonstrate what is amiss and expect it right the next time, when I would demonstrate it again and only now ask for a rewrite. It depends a bit on the audience how it plays out. The most difficult situations arise when dealing with language instructors, they know it all and will argue rather than try to listen, and maybe get it right.
About indents, you are right there. But the books and most of the printed material I run across still have them and I don't make an issue out of it. It is worthwhile to think about where writing goes and who gets to read it when advising (instructing) people. Indents are useful however to be really sure that we are at the start of a paragraph. I am harder on double spaces after periods in typed writing.

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