I was just reading this article on CPR and it occurred to me that there’s been a (recent?) trend in constructing paragraphs that are comprised with just one or two sentences, along with the occasional three sentences. What’s up with that? I find it annoying.
Well, when I went through grades 1-12 in central Indiana, the teachers told us a paragraph had to be at least two sentences. A single sentence should be added to the paragraph above or below depending on which one it fit best. They also had us do outlines and beat the “You can’t have an A. if you don’t have your B.!!” rule to death.
Years later in Georgia, teachers told me a paragraph had to be at least five sentences long. I think that was because of a particular formula that fit the current expectations for a paragraph written for the standardized tests they used.
Whatever. English teachers also all use “compare and contrast” questions when all the dictionaries define compare as “to examine, looking for differences and likenesses.”
I like the white space. I find it easier on my eyes. Maybe they found this is true of a majority of people?
Or maybe it is to fit more side ads in.
From Merriam Webster:
a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line
Note there is no minimum limit.
(Also note that they haven’t updated the definition to cover the use of a blank line instead of an indentation for a new paragraph, but that’s a different issue.)
If one sentence is enough to depict a complete idea, then it is enough to be a complete paragraph.
I’ve noticed myself increasingly breaking online paragraphs into 2-3 sentences. I agree more white space makes reading easier.
K-12 (and maybe even college) English classes are English on training wheels.
This is the kind of bullshit that gives English teachers a bad name. It’s also why the word “prescriptivism” has acquired a derogatory and dismissive connotation, whereas it really only denotes a more rigorously formal approach to language than the less constrained notion of descriptivism.
The fact is that there’s nothing wrong with short paragraphs, including paragraphs of a single sentence (or even a single word) where it’s appropriate. The purpose of paragraphs is to break out ideas or points into separate chunks for ease of comprehension and readability. A single sentence can be useful for emphasizing a single point, making it stand out from the rest of the text – which is one reason it’s used so much (overused, really) in advertising.
ln my view the only time that the insertion of a paragraph break is arbitrary is if a body of text goes on at excessive length because there is no natural break in the narrative. The best policy there is to have mercy on the reader’s eyes and insert a break anyway at some reasonable point. Otherwise, paragraph breaks should always just reflect the natural flow of thought and presentation.
My approach to the “language rules” quandary is to distinguish between some of the arbitrary (and often stupid) rules that we were taught in school, and those rules of grammar and usage that are genuinely important because they contribute to comprehension. Knowing the difference is an important part of basic literacy.
First, I agree with all @wolfpup has said.
Second, this isn’t a recent trend. News stories tend to be written with very short paragraphs. When I took j-school classes, we were taught a lede paragraph to be one or two sentences long (if doing a standard inverted pyramid news story structure.) The following paragraphs were similarly short, with important info up top, less important down the story. That would make it easy to cut if necessary: you just start from the bottom and work your way up.
I have a copy of the Chicago Daily News from 1978 on my desk. Front page story has paragraphs with this many sentences: 2, 3, 2, 2, etc. (before it opens up into longer paragraphs as part of a feature piece.) Mike Royko’s article: 1, 1, 1, 3, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, etc. That one goes on for about a dozen or two more paragraphs, without one longer than 3 sentences that I could see.
It’s nothing new and typical news style.
I tend to write in short paragraphs myself. I suspect that most readers have a short attention span, and if a paragraph goes on too long, their eyes glaze over, TL;DR syndrome. Think of those lengthy 19th century novels (Walter Scott etc) with their adjectives rolling along in neat groups of three! Nobody reads them nowadays.
Starting a new paragraph resets the attention.
I do one-sentence paragraphs.
One sentence, standing alone, has great emphasis. I typically write short stories, and the goal with that format is brevity. The story doesn’t get bogged down with billowing descriptions, and the action or the conversation must carry the reader to the end.
A single-sentence paragraph has amazing power.
I agree with others who believe that more white space can make for easier reading.
I guess – like so many things – it’s all points on a continuum, but my uninformed guess is that a post written in many short paragraphs is less likely to immediately turn off a reader (who then chooses to skip over the post entirely) than a wall of text.
Walls of text are something I absolutely do not read.
I agree with wolfpup on all points. Clarity first, elegance second, and “rules” a distant third.
In my own writing, in addition to subject/perspective shifts, I use single-sentence paragraphs to emphasize a break from expectations. After a longer paragraph establishing a scenario or narrative, I will add a break before a single sentence that is on the same subject, but which throws a wrench into the works.
The fewer words needed to fully express an idea, the better.
It especially helps with reading on a mobile device. Looking at this or any site on your phone, sentences of almost any length look like paragraphs when you’re only getting 7-8 words on a line. “By the rules” paragraphs look like massive walls of text on a phone screen.
Brevity is key!
We cannot say too little on this subject.
Sometimes. It depends on the goal of the author and the piece. It would make for rather monotonous literature if that were the ne plus ultra of writing. I do happen to prefer punchy prose to ornate writing, but sometimes I do like to get lost in the rhythms and sounds of words that may be termed superfluous. For most though, yes, cutting out words is helpful. And definitely for hard news writing.
Those teachers were either totally FoS or merely on a different page from what I was taught, regarding one specific point: when rendering dialog in prose text, the quotes of each of the participants belong in their own paragraph – which, itself, is not a hard and fast edict but is adhered to almost exclusively by most persons who write prose dialog.