59. Paragraph Length

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English Paragraphs do not have “new lines” and should on average be 5-6 normal sentences in length

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THE SUBJECTIVITY OF SOME LANGUAGE DECISIONS

Some language decisions in writing have no clear rules but instead require subjective judgement. Examples from elsewhere within this blog are the choice that can be made in English between a full stop and a semi-colon to show how closely two statements are felt to be linked together (see 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons) and the decision whether or not to give a list as bullet points (74. Sentence Lists 3: Bullet Points).

Dividing what you have to say into paragraphs is also quite subjective. It involves various types of choice, but the one I want to concentrate on here is the length that paragraphs should have. Although not everyone would agree that paragraph length is a subjective choice, I would argue that it is on the evidence of the way English paragraphing differs from that of some other languages. My primary aims in this post are to clarify this difference, and to argue that English paragraphs should in general average about five or six sentences in length.

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HOW ENGLISH PARAGRAPHING DIFFERS FROM THAT OF SOME OTHER LANGUAGES

Writing customs are not the same in every language, and there are some noticeable differences between the customs of  English-speaking countries (and other countries with historical links to Britain) and those in most other European countries (and countries with historical links to them). Of these, the English preference for etc instead of three dots () features in the Guinlist post 1. Simple Example-Giving, and the English use of indirect questions instead of direct ones for introducing a topic is highlighted in the post 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing. Vocabulary with very specific English meaning is illustrated in the post 137. Words that Reflect English Culture.

In paragraph writing, a major difference is that English-speaking writers use text divisions of a single kind, while most other European writers use two kinds of division: “new line” and “new paragraph”, which respectively show weaker and stronger divisions. A new line is made by beginning a sentence at the start of the next line even when there is enough space to begin it on the old one. Here is an example:

New Line

As this example also shows, a “new paragraph” begins on a new line too, but is separated from the old one by a space. It therefore looks like an English paragraph made in the “block” style. But is it really the same?

Many years ago, when I was tutoring French university students in London, the advice I gave about writing in the English style was simply to avoid new lines. However, the consequences soon showed that there was more to the difference between English and “Continental” paragraphing than this. Most of the students who tried to follow my advice still produced paragraphs that were not quite right: too long in the majority of cases, and too short in some.

It seemed to me that the long paragraphs resulted from the new-line divisions being removed, leaving only the Continental paragraph divisions, while the short paragraphs resulted from English-style paragraphs being introduced wherever a new line would have occurred. If this was the correct cause of the unsuitable paragraph lengths, then it meant that neither Continental paragraphs nor new lines correspond exactly to English paragraphs, the former making stronger divisions, the latter weaker ones. The implication for writing in English is that some places where a Continental writer might make a new-line division should be made to start an English paragraph, but not all. The problem then is to decide which.

The determinants of paragraph divisions in a text are, of course, natural breaks in the information being communicated. Some might argue that these are fixed and objective, so that they take the decision about where to make paragraph divisions out of the writer’s hands altogether, and replace it with a need merely to uncover the Truth of their location. However, the fact that English and Continental paragraphs do not always begin and end in the same places suggests that these natural breaks are not so naturally fixed and in fact would be different for different writers. Some differences will be in the strength of breaks, and some will even be in what are and are not natural breaks.

When there is so much subjectivity about natural information breaks, the actual length of paragraphs must take on some importance for deciding where to end them. I believe that both English and Continental writers do follow unconscious length conventions, which are determined by the wider society they live in. This does not mean that length is the only or main criterion for ending a paragraph; paragraphs must always end at a natural information break. But, if a paragraph is getting longer than the customary length, and a natural information break (a weak one if necessary) can be found at a point closer to where the customary length would be achieved, then it would be normal to end the paragraph there and continue anew.

I would suggest that the average length of English paragraphs is about five or six normal-length sentences (following the sentence definition given in the post 30. When to Write a Full Stop). I am being deliberately cautious here in using words like “average”, “about” and “or”. This is partly because individual paragraphs are very frequently longer or shorter than this (it is only the average that is important), and partly because the basis of the suggestion is intuition rather than objective study. The intuition became explicit for me during countless hours spent reading essays by international university students. Like most tutors, I was moved on occasion to question paragraph lengths, and was forced as a result to think about why I felt the paragraph length to be wrong and what length I should recommend.

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AN EXAMPLE OF CHANGEABLE PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS

To finish, I wish to present some examples of how information can be broken up in different ways so as to produce different paragraph divisions. How many paragraphs should the information in this diagram have? .

TREEDIAG3

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Since the diagram shows four different kinds of environmental pollutants, a paragraph based on each seems at first sight appropriate. The problem, however, is that the third and fourth kinds, nuclear waste and rubbish, do not look to involve very much information, so that separate paragraphs for each would probably be very short. Could these two topics be combined into a single paragraph, giving the text as a whole three paragraphs instead of four? There is no reason why not – many writers are happy to combine shorter parts of lists into the same paragraph. There is not even any need to generalise the two headings with a single “list name” (see 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message); the third paragraph could simply be introduced with a list sentence like The third and fourth types of environmental pollutant are … .

In the same way, a single subdivision that looked very long would not have to be presented in a single paragraph. The first subdivision in the above diagram, for example, might take up two paragraphs: one about gases and one about particles. Such an information division is certainly as natural as any other in the text.

Thus, the overall suggestion of this post is that physical length of paragraphs should be consciously considered to check that it averages 5-6 sentences. If the average is longer, there is nearly always a natural break in the information where some paragraphs can be split into two.

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