The Paragraph

  1. Common Features Of All Standard Paragraphs
  2. Becoming More Sophisticated: How the Body Section is Organized
  3. The Purpose and Style of Paragraphs
    1. Narrative
    2. Descriptive
    3. Expository
    4. Persuasive (or Argumentative)
  4. Writing a Paragraph: The Six Step Solution

1. Common Features Of All Standard Paragraphs

In formal writing, a paragraph is a group of sentences, generally from 5 to 12, that develops a single topic. Paragraphs begin with a topic sentence that states the main idea or issue, and this governs the rest of the paragraph. The body section of the paragraph explains and develops this idea or issue. The body should contain at least two or three fully explained examples, and shouldn't have information that is irrelevant or off-topic. In addition, the body examples should be grouped together in a logical or chronological manner and avoid going back and forth. Finally, there is short conclusion that explains how the body supports the topic. In general terms, a paragraph should be an expression of our logical mind: it expresses a point, provides examples, and then explains the connection between topic and premises.*





* A concluding sentence should never be used to introduce the next paragraph. By its very nature, a concluding sentence summarizes the content of the paragraph of which it's part, and/or connects the paragraph to the overall thesis (in a larger essay). In other words, a concluding sentence must conclude, not introduce!

Here are two good examples of this basic structure:

The Troublesome Capulets

ddddIn Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets are quarrelsome, right from the beginning of the story. When Samson and Gregory see Montague servants approaching, they go on the offensive. Samson tells his partner to "quarrel" with the Montagues, and Gregory replies that he will "frown as I pass by," obviously in the hope of getting a fight started. Samson says that he will bite his thumb at the Montagues, which is an insult in fifteenth-century Verona, and Abraham (a Montague servant) takes the bait. He asks if Samson is biting his thumb "at us, sir?" The conversation rapidly degenerates, leading to Samson's challenge, "Draw, if you be men!" At this point, the swordplay begins. Samson, who was spoiling for a fight, has succeeded in starting one. As we can see, the Capulets are the aggressors whose nasty attitude ignites the tension between the two families.

This paragraph is adapted from the Open School's English 11 Mod. 1 booklet.

In terms of complexity, this paragraph is called a basic or standard paragraph.

America in the 1920's

ddddTo a large extent, the 1920's was an era of optimism and progress for America. To be sure, there were some areas of American society and the economy that did not experience progress. Those people involved in the agricultural sector didn't share in the twenties' financial success, as overproduction and trade barriers prevented them from achieving prosperity. Racism was rampant in this period, and was evident with the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and increasing restrictions on immigration. Also, organized crime grew dramatically as a response to prohibition. Nevertheless, many areas of society and the economy did experience spectacular growth and development during the 1920's. A new youth-oriented culture emerged; it emphasized greater freedom - like less restrictive clothing for women - and embraced the radical African-American music called jazz. Mass entertainment became a huge industry, as the radio and the cinema became very popular. These two technologies also allowed Americans to share a common experience, and therefore contributed to a much more unified national culture. The economy grew as people took advantage of the opportunity to buy on credit. People were also able to afford more consumer goods than ever before, because advances in mass production made products like automobiles and radios more affordable. This increase in industrial production led to higher levels of employment and higher wages for employees. Even though there were many negative aspects to the 1920's, the areas where progress was experienced are more noteworthy. The freer culture and prosperous economy allowed America's citizens a higher standard of living than ever before.

This paragraph is courtesy of Lesley-Ann T. (2002).

In terms of complexity, this paragraph is called a complex paragraph.

Like the two examples above, a ll well-written paragraphs are unified, coherent, and complete. They are unified when all of the sentences in the paragraph develop the idea contained in the topic sentence. They are coherent when the sentences are in a logical, understandable order and smoothly integrated with each other (e.g. through the use of transitions). Finally, they are complete when enough facts, details, examples, quotations of authorities, and reasons to support the topic sentence are included to adequately develop the topic (for more on this, see below).

The only exceptions to the general three-part structure are specialty paragraphs that are used in essays. There are introductory and concluding paragraphs. Because they have rather particular functions, they have a different structure than regular, stand-alone (i.e. body) paragraphs. You'll learn more about them when you study essays.

2. Becoming More Sophisticated: How the Body Section is Organized

As we've seen, all regular paragraphs have an introduction, body and conclusion. However, in senior humanities courses, we must go beyond this analysis and appreciate that within this common structure, there are ways in which we can distinguish different types of paragraphs.

One useful distinction between paragraphs is how the body section develops the topic. Though these techniques conform to the basic three-part structure of the paragraph (i.e. introduction, body and conclusion), there are many different ways to develop a topic:

  • using examples and illustrations;
  • citing data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others);
  • examining testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases);
  • using an anecdote or story;
  • defining terms in the paragraph;
  • evaluating causes and reasons;
  • examining effects and consequences;
  • describing the topic;
  • offering a chronology of an event (time segments);
  • arguing one point of view;
  • comparing and contrasting two ideas or items;
  • evaluating different points of view;
  • choosing between two or more options;
  • conceding points to one side of an argument but ultimately favouring the other;
  • showing the extent (large, partial, small) to which something is true or not.

There are actually two main structural types of paragraphs; they are defined by their different organization of the body sentences. The ways in which topics are developed (above) generally fall into these two categories.

The first main type is called the standard explanation paragraph. It is the most common; it offers a series of similar examples to explain or prove a point, or tell a story. The "Troublesome Capulets" paragraph above is a good example of the basic explanation format. The second structural type is the complex comparison paragraph. It is less common, but it is more sophisticated. It usually has two ideas or choices that conflict with each other, and it forces the writer to approach both sides without contradicting him or herself. The "America in the 1920's" paragraph above is a good example of this comparison format. Thus, both types have a beginning, middle and end, but they present their evidence in different formats.

3. The Style of Paragraphs

Another way of distinguishing paragraphs is to examine its style. Here are the four main types of paragraphs in terms of style:

Narrative: The narrative paragraph tells a story, just like a narrator in a play (though it should be a true story, unlike a short story or a play). Narrative writing is best used to illustrate the "personal developmental path" a person (often yourself) has taken to reach a particular point in his/her life. As a result, it is normally written in a first person point of view. True narrative paragraphs are unusual, because they are demanding. A narrative must have a conflict that is overcome. This is the core of any narrative form of writing, be it a paragraph, an essay, or a story). In a paragraph, it usually means a single incident/anecdote, where the narrator experiences some brief challenge that is met and (hopefully) survived. This "overcoming" should in turn lead to some form of understanding. Simply describing or explaining one's surroundings is not a narrative. You need a (brief) establishment of setting, an explanation of the challenge, and the resolution of this challenge. In other words, you need a plot.

For more on narrative paragraphs, please read the Open School's discussion of narrative writing. It includes a useful example of a narrative paragraph.

Descriptive: Descriptive paragraphs paint a picture. In their pure form, they are paragraphs in which nothing happens. "Description" tells us what something looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like or smells like - without action or events. It doesn't explain a relationship or a process beyond oneself; it focuses on one's immediate subjective perceptions. Thus, descriptive writing connects the outer world with our inner feelings. It is usually concerned with creating a verbal picture of what we experience and feel at one moment, and it will use many rich and vivid adjectives and adverbs. So, as a writer, you should make the reader long to smell the rich essence of the trees, the haunting call of the wolves, or the rank odour of the sewer... if that's what you're writing about! Descriptive paragraphs are usually written in the first person point of view, and are much more emotional and personal than expository writing.

For more on descriptive paragraphs, please read the Open School's discussion of descriptive writing. It includes a useful example of a descriptive paragraph.

Expository: The expository paragraph "exposes" or explains things about a subject. It is also sometimes called "information writing" because it gives information about a person, place, thing, relationship or idea. To accomplish that, it is best developed by the use of clear reasons, facts and statistical information, cause and effect relationships, or examples. Since expository paragraphs are factual, they are written without emotion and usually written in the third person. Nevertheless, you can use "I" in your expository writing if the focus is on external, neutral descriptions and explanations, rather than personal feelings (personal feelings move you into "descriptive writing"). Indeed, expository paragraphs and essays are sometimes confused with descriptive writing, because both can spend a lot of time describing things. But again, the big difference is that expository description tends to focus on external objects, situations and processes, in order to explain something in a neutral, matter-of-fact manner. Descriptive paragraphs, on the other hand, tend to focus on our emotional responses as we perceive the world at one point in time.

For more on expository paragraphs, please read the Open School's discussion of expository writing. It includes a useful example of an expository paragraph.

Persuasive: This type of writing is probably the most common form of writing at the university level. Persuasive (or argumentative) writing attempts to convince the reader that the point of view or course of action recommended by the writer is valid. To accomplish this, the writer must develop a limited topic which is well defined and debatable, and has more than one side. It is important that the author understand other sides of the topic so that the strongest information to counter the others can be presented. You may present these opposing points of view, but they must be summarized at the beginning and then quickly refuted (to refute something means to show it is false or not particularly important). If you're not sure how to do this, then simply stick to your side of an argument. While persuasive writing attempts to prove your point of view, it's usually written in an objective, third person point of view; such a stance helps demonstrate your objectivity.

For more on persuasive paragraphs, please read the Open School's discussion of persuasive writing. It includes a useful example of a persuasive paragraph.

4. Writing a Paragraph: The Six Step Solution

Writing a self-contained paragraph that persuades, describes or explains requires some prewriting.

Let's suppose we are writing a persuasive paragraph (very common in the senior humanities and university courses). There are six steps necessary to complete such a paragraph:

Step One: Find a Topic

Usually, you will write in response to a specific question, but sometimes you will be expected to write about a general topic. Let's say our topic deals with some skill that every North American teen should develop in order to be a complete person. For demonstration purposes, the skill will be riding a bicycle, but the student doing this must pick a skill that reflects personal convictions. Writing about something that's close to your beliefs or experience will provide a lot more ideas when you move to Step Two.

Step Two: Developing Ideas

Once a topic has been identified, it's necessary to develop ideas and do some brainstorming. (If you're doing a research piece, then this is the time to write down your notes.) There are various ways to do this, which are described in English 11's Canadian Writer's Companion, pp. 5 -22, or English 12's Handbook of English, pp. 387 - 394.

One way is simply to jot down ideas, which might look like the following:

bike riding:

  • fresh air
  • get out of metal and glass cocoon
  • economical transport
  • no emissions
  • cheap to buy compared to a car
  • more personal
  • easier on environment
  • watch out for those cars
  • cuts down on need to build roads
  • exercise

Step Three: Group Your ideas

Now that you've generated a large number of ideas from brainstorming or research, the next stage is to group your ideas together. Which ideas go together? Which ideas should be thrown out altogether? Once you see some common groupings, you have the makings of sections within a paragraph! You should also begin to see some general topic under which all of your examples can be placed. So, from the above list, you might group your examples like this:

bike riding:

personal - inc. fresh air, exercise, healthier
inexpensive - to buy, inexpensive to operate, doesn't need expensive freeways
easy on environment - no emissions, industries that build, don't pollute as much because smaller scale than auto factories

Step Four: Write the Topic Sentence

Do you see what's happened? Once you've grouped your ideas, it hopefully becomes clear what all them point to (if there are some "stray ideas," like watch out for those cars, maybe you should throw them out). At this point, it's possible to create the topic sentence, which might be:

All Canadian teens should ride a bicycle for everyday transportation, both for their benefit and for the good of the environment.

Step Five: Create An Outline

Now it's time to persuade readers that the main idea (i.e. the topic sentence) is a good one, which they should adopt. They need specific reasons, with details and examples why they should adopt the viewpoint stated in the topic sentence. A list of specifics drawn from Step Three serves as the basis for these reasons. When you put together the last two steps, it becomes an outline. For more information on outlines, consult English 11's Canadian Writer's Companion, pp. 23, 215 - 216, or English 12's Handbook of English, pp. 394 - 403. These pages refer to writing an essay, but the outline structure should be done for a paragraph, too.

Here's our example:

All Canadian teens should ride a bicycle for everyday transportation, both for their benefit and for the good of the environment.

  • fresh air
  • exercise
  • healthier


  • to buy
  • inexpensive to operate
  • doesn't need expensive freeways

easy on environment

  • no emissions
  • industries that build don't pollute as much because smaller scale than auto factories
[Will this be a long paragraph? Yes! In formal writing, the standard paragraph tends to be much longer than you're used to. It is basically a "mini-essay"; it has many examples, but because they are connected to the topic sentence, there is only one indentation. Check out the "America in the 1920's" paragraph as an example.]

Step Six: Write the First Draft

Now that the outline is complete, you are ready to prepare the first draft.


ddddAll Canadian teens should ride a bicycle for everyday transportation, both for their benefit and for the good of the environment. An important personal benefit is the chance to get daily exercise in the fresh air, which includes a cardiovascular workout at no extra charge. Why pay a health studio for a chance to huff and puff on an indoor stair climber, when a brisk five-mile bicycle ride will yield the same benefits? Also, bicycles are inherently easy on the pocketbook, unless the everyday rider chooses to make a statement by buying something far more upscale than everyday transportation patterns require. Financial benefits include low operating costs. How many miles per gallon of gas does a bicycle yield A greater than infinite amount, because bicycles use neither gas nor oil. Admittedly, tires wear or go flat, and brakes need adjusting, but the cost of bicycle operation is nothing like that of operating a car. An overriding benefit, as well, is that bicycle riders are saving the environment for their old age and for their children. A bicycle has no emissions (except for a little rubber scuffed off its tires), and manufacturing it does not require mega-sized industrial plants with belching stacks that load the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses. Clearly, the personal and environmental benefits of riding a bicycle far outweigh the inconveniences for the socially conscious youth of today.

The last sentence, or clincher, echoes and restates the topic sentence.

This paragraph, if treated as a template for single-focus persuasive/expository writing, will see a student right through grade twelve into first-year university courses.

For another look at the paragraph, click here.