Paragraphs: Definition & Rules

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

A paragraph is a piece of writing that is composed of one or more sentences. Learn about the definition, structure, and purpose of a paragraph, and explore the factors to be considered in making an effective paragraph. Updated: 09/29/2021

What Is a Paragraph?

Throughout your education, you have heard it all the time: ''Read the two paragraphs,'' ''Write a 5-paragraph essay,'' ''Organize your paragraphs''… but what is a paragraph?

You are constantly required to deal with paragraphs, either with your own writing or with reading. It is a huge help with these types of activities if you truly understand the definition of a paragraph. A paragraph is a section of a piece of writing covering one topic and indicated by indentation.

Let's look a bit closer at that definition. The first part states a paragraph is 'a section of a piece of writing.' This means paragraphs break down larger pieces of writing. For example, imagine you are reading a chapter in your history textbook on President Abraham Lincoln. Each section of that chapter will be broken into paragraphs. The paragraphs will help you follow along with the ideas throughout the entire chapter.

The second part of the definition states 'a paragraph covers one topic.' Within that larger piece of writing, each paragraph should explain just one concept related to the larger topic. For example, in that chapter on President Lincoln, you may read one paragraph that describes his childhood. That paragraph should focus on only his childhood and not the other parts of his life.

The final part of the definition is 'indicated by indentation.' This makes paragraphs easy to identify. The first line of all paragraphs need to indented, or moved further from the margin than the other lines. This way you can visually see how the topics may change or how a chapter will be broken up.

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Purpose of a Paragraph

Now that you know what a paragraph is, let's discuss why paragraphs are important. As we saw earlier, paragraphs help to keep a large piece of writing organized. Since each paragraph should cover one specific concept, they provide a flow to the writing overall. When you write assignments or essays, paragraphs will help you keep your ideas organized. You should even decide the topic for each paragraph before you begin writing. Then you can organize the whole piece of writing by deciding the order of the topics, and thus, the paragraphs. If you do this and stick to one main idea per paragraph, then your paper, and your ideas, will not be confusing.

Besides helping writers, paragraphs also help readers. Imagine you are reading that chapter on Abraham Lincoln. What if the first few sentences were about how he was elected, the next few were on where he was born, the next on his death, and the next on the start of the Civil War? Wouldn't you be completely confused? Having one paragraph for each of those topics will help you, as the reader, comprehend the author's ideas. Furthermore, you will not be overwhelmed with information and will remain interested in the writing.

Structure of a Paragraph

Now that you know the definition and purpose of a paragraph, let's look at the structure. We have already discussed how the first line of a paragraph should always be indented. This helps the reader visually see when topics will change.

Besides indenting, there are some other things to keep in mind when structuring a paragraph. The first is to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence. The topic sentence serves as the introduction to the whole paragraph. For example, imagine you are writing that paragraph on Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Your topic sentence should be some broad statement about this main idea. Look at this example: ''Abraham Lincoln had a rough childhood.'' If this is your topic sentence, then the whole paragraph must be about challenges he faced when he was young.

The middle of a paragraph should contain supporting sentences, which support the main idea of the paragraph. This should include any details, evidence and examples that prove your point. For the paragraph on Lincoln's childhood, the supporting sentences need to describe where he was born, what his family life was like, and anything else that happened in his childhood. These details should also support the idea of his having a rough childhood.

Finally, each paragraph should end with a closing sentence. You can think of this as the opposite of the topic sentence. This sentence needs to end the paragraph and provide a close to that main idea. For example, ''These events show the early struggles Abraham Lincoln faced in his life.'' could be a possible closing sentence for that paragraph. It summarizes the main idea and provides closure.

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