Paragraph structure and coherence

1 What is a paragraph?

The paragraph links sentences together that focus on the same subject. A sentence can be thought of as being made up of words including a subject, and something being said about that subject, linked together to make a complete thought. The paragraph then takes these complete thoughts and organises them into groups which make a particular point, or are focused on the same subject. Of course, this definition is necessarily vague; a paragraph can be one sentence long or a thousand sentences long. This shows that there is a huge scope for interpretation when the subject of the combined sentences has moved on enough to warrant a new paragraph.

To clarify the point, let’s think of the above paragraph. It is a series of sentences talking about what a paragraph is. It gives a definition of a paragraph, and then adds a point about the vagueness of the definition. The current paragraph has a similar subject, but is specifically talking about the above paragraph, which I deemed to be a different point. The other reason it made sense for me to start a new paragraph is that I wanted to talk about the above paragraph as though it were a single unit. If I carried on without a break, it wouldn’t make sense because it would be part of the same paragraph. This brings up the interesting point that we sometimes change paragraph for reasons relating to aesthetics and ease of reading.

The aforementioned example of starting a new paragraph because I wanted to discuss the previous one is an unusual, specific example. In reality, we will sometimes split a very long paragraph up because it is just easier to read, even though we don’t feel the subject has changed enough. For example, shorter paragraphs are probably more common in online writing, where it can already be quite hard to read for extended periods of time. This suggests the medium that the paragraph is written in is very important. Let’s have a look at paragraph usage in various different mediums to get an idea of the different ways the paragraph is used to fit particular purposes.

1.1 The paragraph in different settings

1.1.1 The paragraph in fiction

There are widely varying paragraph structures in fiction.

Because fiction often has a lot of dialogue, we see a lot of one line paragraphs. The rule is that every time a new person speaks we start a new paragraph. So, for example:

‘What are you looking at?’ said John.

‘Not much’ said Amy.

Amy folded her arms together and flared her nostrils.

‘What are we arguing about again?’ said John.

Note how a new line is created each time a new person speaks. Also note how a new line is created after a new person speaks, as in the new line for ‘Amy folded her arms together and flared her nostrils.’ This wouldn’t be the case if that sentence were part of the sentence above, as in the second line below:

‘What are you looking at?’ said John.

‘Not much’ said Amy, folding her arms together and flaring her nostrils.

‘What are we arguing about again?’ said John.

The other interesting difference here is that starting a new paragraph for ‘Amy folded her arms together and flared her nostrils.’ makes it feel like more time has passed between Amy saying ‘Not much’ and doing that movement; in contrast, in the second example, Amy folding her arms together and flaring her nostrils’ feels like it is happening at the same time as her saying ‘Not much.’ It must be said, however, that this is also because of the use of the present participles ‘folding’ and ‘flaring’, rather than the simple past tense verbs ‘folded’ and ‘flared’. Nevertheless, this does give an indication that paragraphs can be important in showing time passing.

And, just to show what the original would look like without the paragraph breaks:

‘What are you looking at?’ said John. ‘Not much’ said Amy. Amy folded her arms together and flared her nostrils. ‘What are we arguing about again?’ said John.

This is much harder to follow, and this is almost as simple of an exchange as can be had.

Of course, fiction has many other types of paragraphs including descriptions of action and reflection, which often go into much more detail than something like a journalistic article. This can lead to long paragraphs, but these are often offset against short ones, to prevent monotony. As an example, take these two long paragraphs followed by a short one at the end, from Orwell’s 1984:

It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate. Winston was just taking his place in one of the middle rows when two people whom he knew by sight, but had never spoken to, came unexpectedly into the room. One of them was a girl whom he often passed in the corridors. He did not know her name, but he knew that she worked in the Fiction Department. Presumably — since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner — she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines. She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He knew the reason. It was because of the atmosphere of hockey-fields and cold baths and community hikes and general clean-mindedness which she managed to carry about with her. He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy. But this particular girl gave him the impression of being more dangerous than most. Once when they passed in the corridor she gave him a quick sidelong glance which seemed to pierce right into him and for a moment had filled him with black terror. The idea had even crossed his mind that she might be an agent of the Thought Police. That, it was true, was very unlikely. Still, he continued to feel a peculiar uneasiness, which had fear mixed up in it as well as hostility, whenever she was anywhere near him.

The other person was a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston had only a dim idea of its nature. A momentary hush passed over the group of people round the chairs as they saw the black overalls of an Inner Party member approaching. O’Brien was a large, burly man with a thick neck and a coarse, humorous, brutal face. In spite of his formidable appearance he had a certain charm of manner. He had a trick of resettling his spectacles on his nose which was curiously disarming — in some indefinable way, curiously civilized. It was a gesture which, if anyone had still thought in such terms, might have recalled an eighteenth-century nobleman offering his snuffbox. Winston had seen O’Brien perhaps a dozen times in almost as many years. He felt deeply drawn to him, and not solely because he was intrigued by the contrast between O’Brien’s urbane manner and his prize-fighter’s physique. Much more it was because of a secretly held belief — or perhaps not even a belief, merely a hope — that O’Brien’s political orthodoxy was not perfect. Something in his face suggested it irresistibly. And again, perhaps it was not even unorthodoxy that was written in his face, but simply intelligence. But at any rate he had the appearance of being a person that you could talk to if somehow you could cheat the telescreen and get him alone. Winston had never made the smallest effort to verify this guess: indeed, there was no way of doing so. At this moment O’Brien glanced at his wrist-watch, saw that it was nearly eleven hundred, and evidently decided to stay in the Records Department until the Two Minutes Hate was over. He took a chair in the same row as Winston, a couple of places away. A small, sandy-haired woman who worked in the next cubicle to Winston was between them. The girl with dark hair was sitting immediately behind.

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

Note how the first paragraph is about a person, the second about another person being compared and the final paragraph giving us a new action which moves the story along. It is important right away to get into the habit of being able to figure out the defining subject of each paragraph. A good exercise is to read some paragraphs from a writer you respect and to practice summarising each paragraph in one sentence. So, with the above, you might write:

1) About a girl Winston passed in the corridor, and the paranoia, distrust and fear that she produced in him, which relate to the totalitarian society he lives in.

2) About a man named O’Brien, and the more hopeful, trusting, alluring feelings that he produced in Winston in relation to the totalitarian society he lives in.

3) The beginning of a process known as ‘The Hate’.

The next thing to do is think about why these paragraphs are structured this way. What is gained from putting them in this order? Would you do it differently? What Orwell has done here is place descriptions of two people whom provoke very different feelings in Winston next to each other, which, in my mind at least, has the effect of emphasising that difference. This is known as ‘juxtaposition’, and is one thing you might notice when thinking about the structure of these 3 paragraphs. Furthermore, a number of things could be said about the short third paragraph that comes last. It could be said to be juxtaposed against the longer previous two, emphasising the bluntness of the ‘grinding speech’ that it describes. If the previous two paragraphs were all about complex feelings, this final paragraph is a jarring introduction to a repressive totalitarian propaganda exercise.

Of course there are many different types of fiction such as play, film and TV scripts. We could discuss paragraphs in different types of fiction all day, but let’s move on to have a look at academic writing next.

1.1.2 The paragraph in academic writing

Academic writing is the most rigid form of writing. There is rarely going to be any sort of dialogue, and there is probably a bit less leeway with paragraph structure. In my opinion, the vital thing with academic writing, other than being technically accurate, is clarity. I say this because scientific papers are often full of very technical information which even people in the fields can find hard to read. Most scientific papers will be broken up into the introduction, methods, results and discussion. Let’s look at each of these briefly, using this openly accessible paper as an example.

The introduction (called ‘background’ in this example) of scientific papers like this generally explain the background that led to the study including summarising previous important studies in the field, the reasons for doing the study, and the hypothesis of the study. Generally speaking, the introduction will start off more broad, and become more specific as it moves forward. To use the example of the introduction in the aforementioned paper, we have the following topics for each of the paragraphs:

1. We desperately need cures for neurodegenerative diseases (a very general paragraph)

2. The challenge of regeneration in the neurological system (a bit more specific to the papers goal)

3. The specific objective of the experiments (much more specific)

4. Brief summary of the findings they got from their experiments (also very specific, and further along in the timeline from 3)

This section can sometimes have some longer paragraphs, especially when trying to detail some of the previous findings. The goal is to take the reader from the beginning all the way to the current study to get them set up and ready to understand the context of the study to come.

If you look at the methods section, in this particular case, almost every paragraph has its own heading full of technical detail on how the experiments were done. There is no space for reflection here: the paragraphs have to be full of precise information which allow others to see exactly how it was done, with enough accuracy that they could even repeat it themselves.

The results section also has a lot of headings, but tells much more of a story than the methods, detailing what was found in a linear progression. Each paragraph here is devoted to a particular experiment, or set of strongly related experiments. So they discuss a set of experiments in one paragraph, then the next set in the next, and so on, with the general idea of moving along from the first ones through to the final ones in a linear progression, even if science doesn’t always turn out to be so neat!

The discussion is a more free flowing piece of writing. It generally summarises what was found, discusses the relevance of the findings to the field, explores what good and bad aspects there were to the study (such as a discussion on the methods), and suggests what future studies, or actions, might be desirable.

If we were to write down the subject for each of the paragraphs in this discussion section, it could be written as follows:

1) Main findings

2) Comparison to previous studies they did

3) Discussion of a strength of their study

4) Discussion of the main finding

5) Discussion of the methods in the main finding

6) Discussion of further studies / applications

7) Discussion of further questions in the field

The noticeable thing about scientific writing like this is it often feels impenetrable. Part of the reason for this is surely the large amount of specialist terms used, which means a lot of extra reading is needed to understand what is being referred to, and the reference to studies which the reader might not have read, and therefore will likely not fully understand. I also wonder whether the paragraph and sentence structure could be made more accessible. Whatever the case, academic writing is an interesting example of a much more rigid and less experimental style of paragraph structuring which is trying to document something very precisely and in detail.

1.1.3 The paragraph in journalistic writing

Paragraphs in journalistic writing are often short for a number of reasons. One of these is simply because they are often written in the narrow columns of newspapers, making them appear to be longer than they actually are. This means shorter paragraphs are encouraged to prevent a difficult to read wall of text. Moreover, a lot of journalistic writing is online nowadays; personally, I find reading for an extended period of time on a computer screen harder on the eyes than I do from a book. Combined with our ever shortening attention spans, this might be another reason why online publishers try not to scare people away with  ominously long looking paragraphs. Another reason is that journalistic writing should mostly be about writing very clear and accurate descriptions of something that has happened. It doesn’t commonly involve the sort of detailed picture creation and reflections that we often see in fictional works. This leads to more concise paragraphs in a lot of cases.

For example, if we go to the BBC news website and look at the first report we get the following combination of mostly one sentence paragraphs:

Storm Gertrude is sweeping across parts of the UK with winds of more than 90mph causing damage and travel disruption.

There are more than 40 flood alerts for Scotland, which has been worst-hit by the storm, as well as a rare Met Office red alert for Orkney and Shetland.

More than 10,000 homes have been left without power, and trains and ferries have been cancelled. Power lines have been brought down in Northern Ireland.

Wind speeds are expected to push close to 80mph in North Yorkshire.

Forecasters have warned of dangerous conditions and urged people to secure loose garden furniture.

Gusts of 90mph have been recorded in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. In Edinburgh, a man has been knocked down by flying debris and is being treated for head injuries at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

The Met Office has issued amber “be prepared” and yellow “be aware” warnings for other areas of Scotland and large parts of the rest of the UK.

North-east England is expected to see wind speeds of about 65mph later.

There are certainly no wasted words here! With this being mostly single sentences, this is perhaps an extreme of example of a concise piece of journalistic writing. However, it does illustrate just how much variance in paragraph length there can be in different types of writing. Nevertheless, all three examples do generally have a single subject per paragraph; it is just the fictional and academic writing provides much more expansion on the point.

Now that we have had a brief look at paragraphs in different mediums, let’s start looking at an important idea relating to them having one subject each: the topic sentence.

1.2 The topic sentence

A topic sentence is a sentence which identifies or summarises the main topic in the paragraph. They are often at the beginning of a paragraph, but can be seen throughout. There are some common constructions that we see as topic sentences. Let’s explore these next.

1.2.1 Complex sentence

A complex sentence contains a main clause, which can stand alone as a sentence, and a subordinate clause, which cannot stand alone and is subordinate to the main clause. These can be useful for topic sentences because the subordinate part of the sentence can refer to the previous paragraph, and then the main clause can bring in the new idea to be explored in the current paragraph. This is great because it creates a link between the paragraphs which creates a more flowing piece of writing. Let’s look at some examples of this from fiction, academic and journalistic writing.

Fiction

Here – in bold in the second paragraph– is an example of a complex sentence being used as the topic sentence, and linking to the previous paragraph, from Orwell’s 1984. Make sure to read the whole thing because this will allow you to see the the way the topic sentence in the second paragraph transitions from the first paragraph by referring back to it.

Winston’s diaphragm was constricted. He could never see the face of Goldstein without a painful mixture of emotions. It was a lean Jewish face, with a great fuzzy aureole of white hair and a small goatee beard — a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable, with a kind of senile silliness in the long thin nose, near the end of which a pair of spectacles was perched. It resembled the face of a sheep, and the voice, too, had a sheep-like quality. Goldstein was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party — an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. He was abusing Big Brother, he was denouncing the dictatorship of the Party, he was demanding the immediate conclusion of peace with Eurasia, he was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, he was crying hysterically that the revolution had been betrayed — and all this in rapid polysyllabic speech which was a sort of parody of the habitual style of the orators of the Party, and even contained Newspeak words: more Newspeak words, indeed, than any Party member would normally use in real life. And all the while, lest one should be in any doubt as to the reality which Goldstein’s specious claptrap covered, behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of the Eurasian army — row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces, who swam up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar. The dull rhythmic tramp of the soldiers’ boots formed the background to Goldstein’s bleating voice.

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as the book. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Brotherhood nor the book was a subject that any ordinary Party member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In bold we have the complex sentence:

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room.

This contains the subordinate clause ‘Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds’ which links to the actions of the previous paragraph, and the main clause ‘uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room’ which links us on to the topic of the people’s reaction in the second paragraph. Let’s look at each of these briefly, starting with the subordinate clause:

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds

This subordinate clause provides a link back to the previous paragraph. The previous paragraph is describing a process known as ‘the Hate’, going into detail about some of the things shown during this process. The important thing here is that this subordinate clause is referring back to ‘the Hate’, thus meaning that there is a connection to the previous paragraph. If we don’t make connections between paragraphs like this, the piece can appear disjointed. We don’t always have to have such an explicit link as this, but some sort of connection is definitely useful to make the piece feel connected. The other way Orwell links back to the previous paragraph here is by the reference to ‘thirty seconds’ that had passed by (well, more accurately, ‘before’ suggests that not even this thirty seconds had passed by yet). This time period that had ‘proceeded’ took place, at least in part, within the previous paragraph, providing a further link back to what was described there.

Now for the main clause:

uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room.

This main clause now introduces the subject for the next paragraph, which goes on to talk about the reactions of people to the process of ‘the Hate’ – summarised by the ‘uncontrollable exclamations of rage’ which this main clause introduces. This initial rage introduces the people’s most overt reactions, but the rest of the paragraph then goes on to give extra nuances about the people’s reactions, the governments stories about him and the methods used to discredit him.

I should end by saying it is not necessarily 100% correct that this is the topic sentence; you might think another sentence is. Have a read through and think if there are any other sentences which play this role. Furthermore, try and see if you can identify a topic sentence for the first paragraph.

Academic

Below – in bold – we have an example of a complex sentence being used as the topic sentence and linking to the previous paragraph, from this open access psychology paper:

The explanations for the results in these studies were similar to explanations in some studies that investigated the effectiveness of artificial-intelligence–based tutoring systems. It was suggested that impasses occurring in learning could cause emotions, such as confusion, which might induce learners to deliberately focus on their knowledge gaps and, in turn, enhance their learning gains. For example, learners who could resolve their confusion about false feedback provided by an artificial tutoring agent for their responses to problems (e.g., Craig, Graesser, Sullins, & Gholson, 2004; D’Mello & Graesser, 2012; Lehman, D’Mello, & Graesser, 2012) or learners who could resolve their confusion about a contradictory conversation between an artificial tutoring agent and an artificial student agent (e.g., D’Mello, Lehman, Pekrun, & Graesser, 2014) performed better in subsequent posttests compared with their counterparts who did not perceive or could not resolve their confusions. VanLehn, Siler, Murray, Yamauchi, and Baggett (2003) also found positive learning effects of confusion resulting from impasses when learning a specific physics principle using human to human tutor instruction.

Although the explanations of results based on intelligent tutoring systems and productive failure or invention learning techniques are similar, the experimental methodology has been different. Some of the experiments in the studies within the frameworks of productive failure and invention learning used different learning content in the experimental and control groups in invention learning studies or added cases or concepts of contrasting activities to the explicit instruction in experimental but not control groups in productive failure studies. Such procedures may render it difficult to determine causality. Running at least some strictly controlled experiments in this area remains an important issue.

Here we have the complex sentence:

Although the explanations of results based on intelligent tutoring systems and productive failure or invention learning techniques are similar, the experimental methodology has been different.

working as the topic sentence. It is using its subordinate clause ‘Although the explanations of results based on intelligent tutoring systems and productive failure or invention learning techniques are similar’ to link back to the previous paragraph, and its main clause ‘the experimental methodology has been different’ to introduce the subject for the paragraph it is in. Let’s look at both briefly, starting with the subordinate clause:

Although the explanations of results based on intelligent tutoring systems and productive failure or invention learning techniques are similar,

This subordinate clause links back to the topic of the previous paragraph. Actually, it links back very strongly to the first sentence of the previous paragraph, which itself links back to the paragraph before. We could probably argue over whether the first, or second, sentence of paragraph one is the topic sentence. Here is the first:

The explanations for the results in these studies were similar to explanations in some studies that investigated the effectiveness of artificial-intelligence–based tutoring systems.

I think I would probably go with this because the rest of the paragraph describes some of these explanations and studies, and, vitally, it mentions examples of the explanations from artificial tutoring systems, then ends with an example with similar results from a study of a human-human tutoring exchange. Therefore it is talking about the similarity of results from the systems described in the previous paragraph (take a look at the paragraph before this one in the paper to see what I mean), and the artificial intelligence systems.

However take a look at the second: 

It was suggested that impasses occurring in learning could cause emotions, such as confusion, which might induce learners to deliberately focus on their knowledge gaps and, in turn, enhance their learning gains.

The rest of the paragraph after this mention of ‘confusion’ in learning goes on to talk about examples of this concept. Therefore, we could also say that this is the topic sentence, as the paragraph focuses on confusion for all of the proceeding sentences. I would still say the first is the topic sentence though as, while it does focus on confusion, this is actually an example of the sort of explanation which is similar in the two systems mentioned at the beginning so I would think of this sentence as a more specific expansion on the first. Have a grapple with it and see what you think.

OK, so let’s assume the first sentence of the first paragraph is its topic sentence. Now let’s look at the topic sentence of the first paragraph next to the subordinate clause from the topic sentence of the second, for comparison:

Topic sentence from first paragraph

The explanations for the results in these studies were similar to explanations in some studies that investigated the effectiveness of artificial-intelligence–based tutoring systems.

Subordinate clause of the topic sentence from second paragraph

Although the explanations of results based on intelligent tutoring systems and productive failure or invention learning techniques are similar,

Note how the subordinate clause of the topic sentence from the second paragraph is referring to the same idea described in the topic sentence of the first paragraph – that is, the explanations of results from two different types of studies are similar. In this way, the subordinate clause is beginning the second paragraph with a strong referral back to the subject of the previous paragraph.

Now let’s look at the main clause:

the experimental methodology has been different.

Here we have the main clause which is introducing the subject for the second paragraph – that is, the different methodologies used in these studies whose results have similar explanations.

Journalistic

Here – in bold – is an example of a complex sentence from this report in The Guardian:

De Mistura, the third UN envoy appointed to handle the Syrian war since it erupted nearly five years ago, plans to hold talks for six months, exploring prospects for ceasefires, action against Isis and improved humanitarian access. The longer-term goal is setting up a transitional government to draft a new constitution and hold elections within 18 months. But the central question of Assad’s future is still not on the table.

When Syrian peace talks were held in Geneva two years ago, nothing at all was achieved. Expectations this time round could hardly be lower – certainly over reaching a negotiated political settlement. Yet signs are that the goals may be becoming less ambitious. “The least we can hope for,” said one senior diplomat, “is a significant reduction in violence and guarantees to protect civilian areas.”

Here we have the complex sentence:

When Syrian peace talks were held in Geneva two years ago, nothing at all was achieved.

working as the topic sentence in the second paragraph. It has the subordinate clause ‘When Syrian peace talks were held in Geneva two years agolinking the second paragraph back to the first, and the main clause ‘nothing at all was achieved’ providing the subject for the second paragraph. Let’s look at them both briefly, starting with the subordinate clause:

When Syrian peace talks were held in Geneva two years ago

The previous paragraph begins with the mention of holding ‘talks for six months, exploring prospects for ceasefires, action against Isis and improved humanitarian access’, and this subordinate clause links back to that with the mention of ‘peace talks’ that were held in the past. Note how the subordinate clause even has a link to another story in it, so it is both linking back to the previous paragraph and to a previous story repeated on the website.

Now for the main clause:

nothing at all was achieved

This then introduces the point of the second paragraph: that talks didn’t do well in the past, and the gloomy outlook there are for talks in the future.

The interesting thing about these two paragraphs is their short length in comparison to the fiction and academic examples. This style just has a topic sentence, then an expansion on it, before moving on to the next paragraph. Nevertheless, there are still single subjects that could be described for each paragraph. The first one it talking about De Mistura’s short and long term goals as UN envoy in the region, and the second is about the prospects that the talks have, considering those in the past, and what we know about the future.

1.2.2 Questions

Questions can also be used as topic sentences. This often involves asking a question which both refers back to the topic of the previous paragraph, or further, and lets the reader know what is going to be answered in the current  one. Let’s look at some examples from fiction, academic and journalistic writing again.

Fiction example

Here – in bold – is an example of a question being used as a topic sentence in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

With a sinking heart and a nervous tremor, he went up to a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street. This house was let out in tiny tenements and was inhabited by working people of all kinds—tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, etc. There was a continual coming and going through the two gates and in the two courtyards of the house. Three or four door-keepers were employed on the building. The young man was very glad to meet none of them, and at once slipped unnoticed through the door on the right, and up the staircase. It was a back staircase, dark and narrow, but he was familiar with it already, and knew his way, and he liked all these surroundings: in such darkness even the most inquisitive eyes were not to be dreaded.

“If I am so scared now, what would it be if it somehow came to pass that I were really going to do it?” he could not help asking himself as he reached the fourth storey. There his progress was barred by some porters who were engaged in moving furniture out of a flat. He knew that the flat had been occupied by a German clerk in the civil service, and his family. This German was moving out then, and so the fourth floor on this staircase would be untenanted except by the old woman. “That’s a good thing anyway,” he thought to himself, as he rang the bell of the old woman’s flat. The bell gave a faint tinkle as though it were made of tin and not of copper. The little flats in such houses always have bells that ring like that. He had forgotten the note of that bell, and now its peculiar tinkle seemed to remind him of something and to bring it clearly before him…. He started, his nerves were terribly overstrained by now. In a little while, the door was opened a tiny crack: the old woman eyed her visitor with evident distrust through the crack, and nothing could be seen but her little eyes, glittering in the darkness. But, seeing a number of people on the landing, she grew bolder, and opened the door wide. The young man stepped into the dark entry, which was partitioned off from the tiny kitchen. The old woman stood facing him in silence and looking inquiringly at him. She was a diminutive, withered up old woman of sixty, with sharp malignant eyes and a sharp little nose. Her colourless, somewhat grizzled hair was thickly smeared with oil, and she wore no kerchief over it. Round her thin long neck, which looked like a hen’s leg, was knotted some sort of flannel rag, and, in spite of the heat, there hung flapping on her shoulders, a mangy fur cape, yellow with age. The old woman coughed and groaned at every instant. The young man must have looked at her with a rather peculiar expression, for a gleam of mistrust came into her eyes again.

Here Dostoevsky uses this question to begin the paragraph:

“If I am so scared now, what would it be if it somehow came to pass that I were really going to do it?” he could not help asking himself as he reached the fourth storey.

Is this the topic sentence? It is certainly less obvious than some of the other examples, but it is also interesting in its construction. Firstly, it does link back to the previous paragraph – which begins itself with an expression of his ‘sinking heart and nervous tremor’ –- by talking about how scared he is now. The burning question, however, is does this sentence describe the subject of the paragraph it is in?

There is one side of the argument which would answer ‘no’ because the paragraph is largely about him ringing the bell and being greeted by the lady. The other side of the argument would answer ‘yes’ because the paragraph isn’t really about his actions, but his feelings. This question he asks himself sets the scene for the entire paragraph, providing tension by letting us know that inside his mind he is both scared and plotting to do something, which so far has not been fully described. Everything that follows, therefore, is really just the actions of a man who has this burning desire in his soul to commit some immoral act on this old woman.

If you want to explore this further you can read all of the preceding paragraphs to this question in an online version of the book, here. It’s right at the beginning of chapter one – 11 paragraphs in – so this won’t take long. The reason this is an interesting thing to do is that this question is actually hanging over him throughout those preceding 10 paragraphs, which means that it links back to not only the previous paragraph, but to all of the paragraphs going back to the beginning of the novel.

Journalistic writing

Using questions as topic sentences is quite common in opinion articles, like this one in The Guardian. An example from that article is:

Wealth accumulation in noncapitalistic societies was often predicated on forced seizure – a process known as “primitive accumulation”. The most famous instance was the English enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, which paved the way for the expansion of many great landed estates.

But is inequality inevitable in human society? In the late 19th century, evolutionary anthropologists such as Henry Maine and Lewis Morgan suggested that the human societies of their time may have evolved from less complex forms of clan-based societies into more complex class-based societies.

The above topic sentence question ‘But is inequality inevitable in human society?’ asks the question which it then begins to answer in the following sentence that makes up its paragraph. The interesting thing about this example is the topic sentence question for this short paragraph actually works as a change of direction for the whole article, which begins by talking about the abundance of inequality throughout history then moves on to asking the above question, and then expanding on it in many other paragraphs.

1.2.3 Bridge sentences

A bridge sentence is a bit of a vague term, which seems to be relating to the use of a transitional term such as a coordinating conjunctions like ‘but’ and conjunctive adverbs like ‘nevertheless’ and ‘however’ at the beginning of a paragraph, in the topic sentence, to link back to the previous paragraph. Take this example from Joseph Heller’s novel Something happened:

The current (and recurrent) antagonism between Kagle and Brown is over call reports again. The salesmen are reluctant to fill out these small printed pink, blue, and white forms (pink for prospects, blue for active, and white for formerly active; that is, accounts that have lapsed and are therefore prospects again, though not necessarily lively ones) describing with some hope and detail the sales calls they have made (or allege they have made). The salesmen are reluctant to come to grips with any kind of paperwork more elaborate than writing out order forms; they especially hate to fill out their expense account reports and fall weeks, sometimes months, behind. The salesmen know beforehand that most of the information they will have to supply in their call reports will be false. Brown maintains that call reports are a waste of everybody’s time, and he is reluctant to compel the salesmen to fill them out. Kagle is afraid of Brown, and he is reluctant to compel Brown to compel the salesmen to fill them out.

But Arthur Baron wants the call reports. Arthur Baron has no other way of keeping familiar with what the salesmen are up to (or say they are) and a no more reliable source of knowledge on which to base his own decisions and reports, even though he is certainly aware that most of the knowledge on which he bases his decisions and prepares his own reports is composed of lies.

Here we have the bridge sentence ‘But Arthur Baron wants the call reports’ which uses ‘but’ as a transitional expression to create a sentence which links on from the previous paragraph and introduces the subject below. We look in more detail at transitional expressions very shortly, so I will leave that there for now.

1.2.4 Unusual topic sentence positions 

The examples we have looked at so far have all been of topic sentences placed right at the beginning of the paragraph. This appears to be by far the most common place to find the topic sentence. The reason for this is likely because it is the most clear, simple and logical layout for a paragraph. If that first sentence encompasses what the paragraph is about, then the reader begins with that in his mind. This aids his eventual understanding of the paragraph, and allows for the topic to be introduced, and then expanded on as the paragraph progresses.

Nevertheless, topic sentences won’t necessarily always be found in the first line of the paragraph. They can be anywhere in the paragraph, and there can even be two of them. Let’s look at a few less common placements of topic sentences.

Topic sentence at both bottom and top of paragraph

Here is an example where it appears there is a topic sentence at both the top and the bottom of the paragraph, from Jones’ non-fiction book The Establishment: And how they get away with it:

The Crown is a bit of a vague institution, but it is kind of the heart of the constitution, where all the power comes from,’ says Andrew Child, campaign manager of Republic, a group advocating an elected head of state. The Prime Minister appoints and sacks government ministers without needing to consult the legislature or electorate because he is using the Queen’s powers: these are the Crown’s ministers, not the people’s. In practice, too, members of the Royal Family have a powerful platform from which to intervene in democratic decisions. Prince Charles, the designated successor to the throne, has met with ministers at least three dozen times since the 2010 general election and is known to have strong opinions on issues such as the environment, the hunting ban, ‘alternative’ medicine and heritage. In June 2014, it was revealed that the Prince had lobbied Tony Blair’s government to expand the number of grammar schools. Above all else, it is Britain’s monarchy – and not its people – that is sovereign. It helps to institutionalize the inherently undemocratic features of the Establishment. After all, Britain is not, constitutionally, a country ruled by its own people.

It could be said that both the sentences in bold are topic sentences. This is useful when starting with a point, building on it, then repeating it in a different way at the end to drive home the point. Note how the first sentence is much longer, and in quote form, then at the end the very similar point is made in shorter form, and in the author’s own words. This emphasises the point at the end, to reiterate what was being said in a more forceful way, and to leave the reader with the point of the paragraph firmly in his mind.

Two topic sentences at the top of the paragraph

Here is an example where there appear to be two topic sentences at the top of the paragraph, from Zinn’s non-fiction history book A People’s History of the United States:

Was all this bloodshed and deceit – from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans – a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization? Was Morison right in burying the story of genocide inside a more important story of human progress? Perhaps a persuasive argument can be made – as it was made by Stalin when he killed peasants for industrial progress in the Soviet Union, as it was made by Churchill explaining the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, and Truman explaining Hiroshima. But how can the judgment be made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the losses are either unmentioned or mentioned quickly?

The two questions in bold appear to both be topic sentences to me, with them then being answered in the order they are asked; that is, the third sentence answering the first question, and the fourth sentence answering the second. This structure is useful because it allows Zinn to show the overlap between these two questions – namely, that we can never hope to answer the first question if the second question is answered ‘yes’. In other words, we can never make judgements about historical events if they are not reported sufficiently.

Introductory sentences followed by the topic sentence

Here is an interesting example of a paragraph where there are a couple of introductory sentences, then the topic sentence, from Jones’ non-fiction book The Establishment: And how they get away with it:

These various definitions of the Establishment nevertheless share one thing in common: they are always pejorative. With this in mind, you might think that few would be willing to admit to membership of such a reviled club. But some powerful figures have no qualms about doing so. On being greeted with a firm handshake by the patrician Lord Butler in his central London pied-à-terre, it was difficult for me to escape the sense that he was born to rule. When he was a student at Oxford, it was rumoured – presumably only half-jokingly – that anyone tackling him on the rugby pitches risked kicking their future career prospects into touch. Private Secretary to a succession of Prime Ministers, including Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, Butler became the country’s most senior civil servant before stepping down under Tony Blair. He has the intimidating, lightly worn self-assurance common to the powerful. As his maid busied herself in the kitchen, I asked him whether he considered himself to be part of the Establishment. He replied without blinking: ‘Yes.’ But even as he expanded on his answer, his definition of what it meant to be in the Establishment started to blur. ‘Well, I mean, in that I’ve had a privileged background, which has introduced me to a lot of people, I’ve been fortunate in being in the right place at the right time. So yes, I think I am part of a group including many of whom have or have had power.’

In this paragraph the sentence in bold appears to be the topic sentence. What seems to be happening is the first two sentences are moving us towards one way of thinking (that people wouldn’t want to admit they are part of the establishment), then the topic sentence in bold is pivoting us into the other direction – which turns out to the be the topic of the paragraph. This is a good device for emphasising a point; in this case, it is emphasising that, despite the fact that being part of ‘the establishment’ is something that is looked down on by a lot of society, there are still people who will admit to it. The paragraph then goes on to discuss one such person.

Some might argue that this is incorrect. Let’s look at some of the surrounding sentences to see if any of them fit as the topic sentence:

These various definitions of the Establishment nevertheless share one thing in common: they are always pejorative.

This is the first sentence. Certainly it is relevant to the topic, as would be any sentence in a well written paragraph, but, for me, it doesn’t really capture the point of the paragraph.

Take the next sentence:

With this in mind, you might think that few would be willing to admit to membership of such a reviled club.

This is much closer, and could easily be said to be the defining sentence. The paragraph is about a person who does the opposite to this – someone who is willing to admit to being part of this ‘reviled club’. This is why I prefer the next sentence:

But some powerful figures have no qualms about doing so.

I recommend reading it through a few times and having a think for yourself.

Here is another similar example from Zinn’s non-fiction history book A People’s History of the United States:

Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia-the Americas. It was early October 1492, and thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the water. They saw flocks of birds.

Here we have another sentence which is built up to with one line of thought (Columbus would never have made the journey) then pivots us to the opposing view with the topic sentence. Pushing us towards one point then switching to the other is an interesting tool for emphasising the eventual point.

Here is an interesting topic sentence which comes after one single sentence from Orwell’s novel Animal Farm:

June came and the hay was almost ready for cutting. On Midsummer’s Eve, which was a Saturday, Mr. Jones went into Willingdon and got so drunk at the Red Lion that he did not come back till midday on Sunday. The men had milked the cows in the early morning and then had gone out rabbiting, without bothering to feed the animals. When Mr. Jones got back he immediately went to sleep on the drawing-room sofa with the News of the World over his face, so that when evening came, the animals were still unfed. At last they could stand it no longer. One of the cows broke in the door of the store-shed with her horn and all the animals began to help themselves from the bins. It was just then that Mr. Jones woke up. The next moment he and his four men were in the store-shed with whips in their hands, lashing out in all directions. This was more than the hungry animals could bear. With one accord, though nothing of the kind had been planned beforehand, they flung themselves upon their tormentors. Jones and his men suddenly found themselves being butted and kicked from all sides. The situation was quite out of their control. They had never seen animals behave like this before, and this sudden uprising of creatures whom they were used to thrashing and maltreating just as they chose, frightened them almost out of their wits. After only a moment or two they gave up trying to defend themselves and took to their heels. A minute later all five of them were in full flight down the cart-track that led to the main road, with the animals pursuing them in triumph.

It could be said the sentence in bold is a topic sentence, as the paragraph is about the events that began with this sentence. This is interesting because the subject of this paragraph is really the animals overtaking the farm. However, it could more broadly be said to be about the day that Mr Jones came back at ‘midday on Sunday’. When detailing a series of events in a novel like this, there won’t necessarily be a topic sentence summarising everything because the author will often want to bring the reader there by taking them through the action. If the first sentence in this paragraph was something like ‘the animals took over the farm that day’, this may have had the effect of making the scene less suspenseful. There are perhaps better examples of this out there. Imagine a scene where someone is opening the door to a dark room in an old abandoned psychiatric hospital, but instead of building up to the revelation of what is in the room, the author told us before hand, then described the entrance. The tension of the scene would likely be destroyed.

Topic sentence at only bottom of paragraph

Here is an example where the final sentence could be said to the topic sentence, from Jones’ non-fiction book The Establishment: And how they get away with it:

Neither is this a book about individual ‘villains’. The Establishment is a system and a set of mentalities that cannot be reduced to a politician here or a media magnate there. Little can be understood simply by castigating individuals for being greedy or lacking in compassion. That is not to absolve people of personal responsibility or agency, to argue that individuals are just cogs in a machine or robots, blindly following a pre-written script. But it is to argue against any notion that Britain is ruled by ‘bad’ people, and that if they were replaced by ‘good’ people, then the problems facing democracy would be solved. Many Establishment figures are, in person, full of generosity and empathy for others, including for those in far less privileged circumstances than themselves. Personal decency can happily coexist with the most inimical of systems. On the other hand, other figures are selfish, determined to gain wealth and power whatever the cost to others; as journalist Jon Ronson discovered, an estimated 4 per cent of CEOs are psychopaths, a proportion around four times higher than the rest of the population (14). It is the behaviour that a system tends towards and encourages that needs to be understood.

The final sentence in bold could be said to be the topic sentence here, summarising everything that came before. The effect of this make the rest of the paragraph feel more open as far as where it is going. This, perhaps, allows the reader more room to make up his own mind, before finally introducing the point the author wants to make as the final topic sentence.

Here is another similar example from Zinn’s non-fiction history book A People’s History of the United States:

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

Here the topic sentence in bold is being built towards with the detail of the horrific actions of the Spaniards to the Arawaks. Note how the climax of the topic sentence is even more powerful after being built up to by these preceding details.

No / implied topic sentence

Here is an example of a paragraph which may not have a topic sentence, from Zinn’s non-fiction history book A People’s History of the United States:

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

Does this short paragraph have a topic sentence? The first thing to ask is ‘what is the topic of the paragraph?’ I can see two likely answers. The first is something along the lines of ‘bad practices in historical reporting’. The paragraph then expands on the topic by using the example of Morison. If we think of this as the subject of the sentence, then there isn’t really a clear single topic sentence, even though this subject is implied by the first two sentences. The other subject that the paragraph could be said to have is something like ‘Morison’s historical reporting’. In this case, perhaps, we could have the topic sentence ‘Morison does neither’, which Zinn then goes on to expand on.

As an aside, I feel I have to show you the next paragraph because I have quoted Zinn so far out of context that I have made it seem like he is making a point very different to the one he is. Here is the next paragraph:

But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

There, I feel better now.

Here is another paragraph without a clear topic sentence, from Zinn’s non-fiction history book A People’s History of the United States:

That quick disposal might be acceptable (“Unfortunate, yes, but it had to be done”) to the middle and upper classes of the conquering and “advanced” countries. But is it acceptable to the poor of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or to the prisoners in Soviet labor camps, or the blacks in urban ghettos, or the Indians on reservations – to the victims of that progress which benefits a privileged minority in the world? Was it acceptable (or just inescapable?) to the miners and railroaders of America, the factory hands, the men and women who died by the hundreds of thousands from accidents or sickness, where they worked or where they lived – casualties of progress? And even the privileged minority – must it not reconsider, with that practicality which even privilege cannot abolish, the value of its privileges, when they become threatened by the anger of the sacrificed, whether in organized rebellion, unorganized riot, or simply those brutal individual acts of desperation labeled crimes by law and the state?

This is interesting because, while there doesn’t appear to be a clear topic sentence, the use of rhetorical questions seems to create an implied topic sentence; that is, death and oppression are not an acceptable price to pay for perceived progress from the perspective of the affected communities. This is an interesting construction because Zinn could have more explicitly said what he thinks. However, he instead chose to use rhetorical questions to try to get the reader to tell themselves what he thinks.

1.3 Outlining paragraphs

Especially when writing in a more formal setting, it can be a very good idea to outline what is going to be in each paragraph before writing it. This outlining can then be extended to the whole piece, so we see how each paragraph links together. The most simple way to do this is some sort of number coding system. For example, let’s say you had to write an essay on the effects of education on the economy. The first bit of planning might produce something like:

1) Introduction

2) Main body

3) Conclusion

Then you might think about some points to put in each of these sections

1) Introduction

  • Introduce the question and the ways the essay will tackle it

2) Main body

  • Effect on people’s finances
  • Effect on having the skills needed
  • Effect on crime
  • Effect on people’s health and their use of healthcare

3) Conclusion

  • Summary of final thoughts

The next step will probably come down to your research, or your approach. In short, each of the above bullet points can be broken down into further sub-points which are numbered in descending order. Let’s look at an outline of an essay with a title for each paragraph. It should be noted that many of these points could have more than one paragraph, but let’s write it down as one for the mean time. So, to clarify, in the following example, each of the points (1.1, 2.1, 2.2 etc.) will have their own paragraph in the essay.

Essay title: Effects of education on the economy

1) Introduction

1.1: Introduce the question and the ways the essay will tackle it

2) Main body

A) Effect on people’s personal finance

2.1: Introduction what is meant by personal finance (eg debt, spending, etc) and how it affects the economy.

2.2: Summary of academic studies showing the effects of education on debt

2.3: Critique of the above studies

2.4: Summary of academic studies showing the effects of education on spending

2.5: Critique of the above studies

2.5: Discussion of the best method of education for improving this aspect

B) Effect on having the skills needed

2.6: Introduction to what is meant by ‘skills’ and how it affects the economy

2.7: Summary of academic studies showing the effects of education on skills

2.8: Critique of above studies

2.9: Discussion on the best way to apply education to provide the skills needed

C) Effect on crime

2.7: Introduction on what crime is and how it affects the economy

2.8: Summary of academic studies showing effects of education on crime

2.9 Critique of above studies

2.10: Discussion on the best way to apply education to reduce crime

D) Effect on people’s health

2.11: Introduction to health and how it affects economy (e.g., use of public funding for healthcare)

2.12: Summary of academic studies showing effects of education on people’s health

2.13: Critique of above studies

2.14: Discussion on best ways to apply education to improve health

3) Conclusion

3.1: Summary of final thoughts

Getting good at outlining in a logical manner is vital if you want to produce clear pieces of writing, and, consequently, express yourself effectively and achieve good grades in your essays. In fact, in my experience of writing essays, getting the logical movement between sentences and paragraphs is the difference between a C and an A. In the above example, this might not necessarily be the perfect outline; we should ask ourselves:

1) Are A, B, C and D in the right order?

It might be that, for some logical reason, after doing your research, it makes sense to swap around say the effect on health and the effect on crime. A lot of time should be spent figuring out the most logical way to get from the beginning to the end. As I mentioned, your original plan may well change after some research, or even after doing some writing. It might even be the case that a couple of sections get merged, if, for example, you find that there is so much crossover between a couple of topics that they would be better dealt with side by side. This might seem trivial in comparison to the actual content of the essay, but it really isn’t: the best content around will be marked low, and its message seriously stunted, if it is presented in an illogical and hard to follow way. Think of a few people you know. One of them tells stories perfectly, starting from the beginning and working in steps until the end, giving you a full picture of what happened. Now think of another friend who jumps to the end, then moves back again, filling in bits haphazardly. You are always going to remember, and understand, the first person’s story much more clearly.

2) Is this the most logical way to get through each paragraph?

We now need to focus on getting between sentences within a paragraph. Each sentence within the paragraph should flow just like each paragraph within the essay does. To explore this, we will next look at some of the important ways to make sure the structure and flow of the paragraph itself is logical, clear and smooth as we look at coherence within a paragraph.

2 Coherence within a paragraph

We have looked a little at bridging between paragraphs, but what about bridging between sentences? One of the most vital aspects of any well written paragraph is that each sentence moves on logically from the last. There are a number of common techniques used to help achieve this, although there are, of course, a huge number of ways to move logically from one sentence to the next. Let’s look at some of the most common techniques next.

2.1 Transitional expressions

One common way to move between sentences is by using a transitional word, phrase or clause. A list of transitional expressions can be found here. The choice of transitional expression is dependent on the link that exists between the two sentences. For example, say we are trying to link two sentences that compare similar points, as in:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

These two points are very closely linked because both people keep a note of their calories, but they aren’t exactly the same because they do it in a slightly different way. We have a number of options with what we could do here. We could just leave it as it is because the above sentence is not grammatically incorrect. This might be OK if it were just a couple of sentences, but a whole paragraph in this style would likely lack coherence. We also have a large group of potential transitional expressions we can use to convey the connection between the two. If we wanted to highlight that the two are very similar we can use expressions like ‘similarly’ and ‘likewise’ as in:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. Similarly, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

However, we might also want to highlight the difference between the method of recording calories between the two. In this case, we could use expressions like ‘however’, ‘in contrast’, ‘on the other hand’ or ‘on the contrary’. For example:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. However, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

In this way, we can drastically change what we want to stand out about the link between the two sentences, thus giving us extra control over what the reader takes away.

We sometimes also use transitional phrases to express sequence, or order. For example:

Everyone started expressing the different ways they record their calorie intake. First, Ann said she writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. Second, John noted he writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone. Finally, Larry bragged he is able to remember it in his head and doesn’t need any device. I was surprised by all of these comments because I have never worked out how many calories I eat in a day in my life.

This method is a little mechanical, so it should probably be used sparingly. Seeing as most events happen in sequence, imagine a whole novel where every set of events is set out in a sequence like this; It would soon get tedious. This just shows that, as with all of these methods for coherence, variety – as well as accuracy – is key.

One final thing to note from this example is that the final sentence doesn’t have one of these transitional expressions. This is just to show that we don’t need to start every single sentence with one of these expressions. That will quickly become laborious to read and, ironically, destroy the flow of the paragraph. So, in the the above example, we have three transitional expressions in a row followed by a sentence which uses the pronoun ‘this’ to link back, creating a much needed change of pace. This is comparable to the idea of having a few long sentences/paragraphs, and then ending with a shorter sentence/paragraph. The change in rhythm makes the writing more interesting, and can also be used to add to the meaning. For example, in the above example, the final sentence stands out from the rest because of its change of structure, which highlights this final comment against the previous sentences.

It is also common to want to express a change in time with transitional expressions. For example:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. A week later, John started writing down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

Moreover, we might want to express they happened at the same time, as in:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. Simultaneously, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

We might also want to add an example as a transitional expression, as in:

Both Ann and John write down all of their daily calorie intake in their mobile phones. For example, Ann recorded 2000 calories today, and John recorded 2500.

Sometimes we want to connect the two sentences by emphasising something in the previous sentence, for example:

Both Ann and John meticulously write down all of their daily calorie intake in their mobile phones. In fact, they even write down the free mint at their favourite restaurant, much to the amusement of the staff.

Note how I added the word ‘meticulously’ to the first sentences to stress that they write down every little thing. Then, in the second sentence, ‘in fact’ preceded an example which emphasises just how meticulous they are.

A very common example is wanting to express that the content of one sentence caused the effect seen in the next sentence. This uses words like ‘consequently’ and ‘therefore’. For example:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. Consequently, John decided to start doing the same thing, but he uses his mobile phone instead to try to prevent people noticing.

Now John’s actions are a consequence of Ann’s actions.

Another very common example is when we want to express that the second sentence is adding further evidence to the previous one. This uses words like ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ and is very common in academic, and other formal writing. For example:

Many people in our exercise class keep notes of their calorie intake. For example, Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in perfect handwriting in a paper diary she carries around in her jeans. Furthermore, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone when nobody is looking because he doesn’t want to appear obsessive.

Note how both sentences 2 and 3 are giving evidence to sentence 1. Therefore, the ‘furthermore’ is to indicate that the third sentence is providing an extra bit of evidence to the point in sentence 1. A less informal way of adding information is to use ‘also’ as in:

Many people in our exercise class keep notes of their calorie intake. For example, Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in perfect handwriting in a paper diary she carries around in her jeans. John also writes down his daily calorie intake, but he does it on an app on his mobile phone when nobody is looking because he doesn’t want to be appear obsessive.

Finally, we often want to summarise, or conclude, something. Common expressions for this are: ‘in conclusion’ and ‘to summarise’. An example of this is:

Many people in our exercise class keep notes of their calorie intake. For example, Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone, Ben keeps track of it on his calender and Sophie keeps it all in her head. To summarise, diaries, phone apps, calenders and mental notes are some of the ways that people use to record calorie intake.

It is also worth noting that these transitional expressions don’t all need to be at the beginning of a sentence, as we have seen so far. For example, we can write:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. However, John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. John, however, writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone.

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. John writes down his daily calorie intake, however, on an app on his mobile phone.

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. John writes down his daily calorie intake on an app on his mobile phone, however.

Some of these sound better than others, with the first two, or three, probably flowing the best, and the last one sounding a little awkward. The point is that we don’t have to always write the transitional phrase at the beginning, which can help when trying to create some variety in our sentences.

Of course, I have only shown a few of the many types of transitions possible. Just to show how many potential transitional expressions there are, we could write something like:

Ann writes down all of the calories she eats in a paper diary she carries around. Even though he doesn’t tell anyone, John does the same thing on his mobile phone.

Here we have the subordinate clause ‘Even though he doesn’t tell anyone’ as the transitional phrase, showing we shouldn’t just rely on a few memorised expressions to move from one sentence to the next.

2.2 Repetition

Many of the other methods which are important in coherence could be grouped under the idea of repetition. Let’s take a look at some of these next.

Repetition of the whole expression

Repeating a whole word, phrase or clause from a previous sentence could create a connection between two sentences. For example:

John moved the box to the other side of the room, and began to open it up. He took a deep breath as he realised that the contents of the box could change his life forever.

This does create a connection, but it feels a bit awkward. It is probably best to avoid repeating whole expressions between sentences like this too regularly, unless it is important to retain clarity, of course. Ways to avoid this include repeating only partial bits of the expression, or using synonyms or pronouns. All three of these will be explored next.

Repetition of part of the expression

It is much more common to use repetition of part of an expression to link sentences together. Going back to the previous example:

John moved the box to the other side of the room, and began to open it up. He took a deep breath as he realised that the contents of this dusty old box could change his life forever.

Here we have kept the word ‘box’ from the noun phrase ‘the box’ but gotten rid of the definite article ‘the’. This partial repetition feels less awkward than the full repetition we saw before. This can often be used across sentences too, as in:

John moved the box to the other side of the room, and began to open it up. The light flickered above and the floorboards creaked as he moved his feet into a more stable position. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath as he realised that the contents of this dusty old box could change his life forever.

Another example of partial repetition is:

The government’s policy on increasing mass surveillance to combat terrorism has caused some controversy among those that feel the state is collecting too much data on its citizens. The policy will be debated in the commons later today.

Note how repeating the whole of this phrase would have been incredibly awkward and tedious to read, but that the shorter version of it is much more readable. Another thing that could have been done here is to use the pronoun ‘it’ as in:

The government’s policy on increasing mass surveillance to combat terrorism has caused some controversy among those that feel the state is collecting too much data on its citizens. It will be debated in the commons later today.

Let’s look at the use of pronouns to link sentences next.

Using pronouns to connect ideas

We can also use pronouns to connect one sentence to the next. Let’s look at the example we just saw again:

The government’s policy on increasing mass surveillance to combat terrorism has caused some controversy among those that feel the state is collecting too much data on its citizens. It will be debated in the commons later today.

Note how ‘it’ is actually a kind of partial repetition of the previous phrase in bold; even though it doesn’t use any of the words in the original phrase, it is conveying the same thought.

One of the most effective types of pronouns for this are the demonstrative pronouns:

this, that, these and those.

For example:

On my 21st birthday an ambulance ran over my leg when coming to help me because I had broken my collar bone. That is probably the most ironic thing that has ever happened to be.

Here we have the demonstrative pronoun ‘that’ replacing the whole description of being run over on his 21st birthday. In this way it is referring back to the previous sentence without having to repeat the whole description of what happened. To see what I mean, here is the same two sentences but with ‘that’ replaced by a full description of the scene:

On my 21st birthday an ambulance ran over my leg when coming to help me because I had broken my collar bone. An ambulance running over my leg when coming to help me because I had broken my collar bone is probably the most ironic thing that has ever happened to be.

This is really awkward and repetitive. While the use of a replacement pronoun is definitely better than the repetition in this case, it’s also very important to make sure it’s clear what ‘that’ is referring to. An example where it is not clear what ‘that’ is referring to is:

I had the option to either learn the guitar or the piano. That is the one I decided upon.

It is not clear here whether ‘that’ refers to ‘the guitar’ or ‘the piano’. In this case it would be clearer to write either:

I had the option to either learn the guitar or the piano. The guitar is the one I decided upon.

or:

I had the option to either learn the guitar or the piano. The piano is the one I decided upon.

An example using ‘this’ is:

I really can’t decide whether to learn the guitar or the piano. This is an example of a first world problem.

An example using ‘those’ is:

I used to sometimes go to the airport and get on any plane which had a cheap seat free. Those were some of the best, and the worst, holidays I ever had.

An example using ‘these’ is:

My keys are either on the table at work or in the restaurant. These are the only two places I can think of.

Personal pronouns can also be used in this way. These include:

he, she, you, we, they, I

Some examples are:

The prime minster avoided all of the difficult questions. He has a habit of doing this.

The two brothers are always fighting. They seem to be enjoy it.

The car is falling apart. It is too dilapidated to drive on the road.

The interrogative pronouns:

what, which, who, whom, and whose

can also be used when we want to refer back to the previous sentence with a question relating to it. For example:

I am either going to learn to draw or take up boxing. Which would you say is safer?

I am going to ask out someone in the office. Who do you think is best suited to me?

Synonyms of the expression

We can also use synonyms to link the sentences together; however, we must be clear that the meaning is similar enough to do this. For example:

Planet Earth is full of fascinating lifeforms which continue to astound those who explore it. One of the most amazing things scientists have discovered about some of these organisms is their incredible ability to survive in even the most extreme of situations.

Now that we have gone through some of these techniques, let’s examine the transitions between sentences in some paragraphs.

2.3 Examples of paragraphs

Let’s look at some examples of paragraphs, and explore the way the writer achieves coherence. To begin, here is a paragraph from Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged:

Let’s look at each sentence in turn.

Sentence one:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them.

This is the topic sentence. It is linking on from some passages that have previously been talked about, thus creating a flow between the previous paragraph and the next. It is really important to do this if you want to achieve a flowing piece of writing, otherwise your work will feel like a series of unconnected points, even if each paragraph is coherent within.

Sentence two:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.

Note how this is running on from the previous sentence which ended by mentioning the ‘two qualities’ which are now being described in the current sentence. Orwell does this by using the sequence related transitional phrases ‘the first’ and ‘the other’.

Sentence three:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

Note how this sentence is now expanding on the reasons for the two qualities introduced in the previous sentence: ‘staleness of imagery’ and ‘lack of precision’. This is achieved, in part, by the use of the correlative conjunction construction ‘either…or’. I actually find this sentence a little unclear in its relation to the previous because it also has a third ‘or’, which makes it hard to relate back. Let’s look at each reason separately and consider whether this relates to ‘staleness of imagery”, ‘lack of precision’, or, perhaps, both.

1) ‘The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it’ (this could relate to both: both stale imagery and lack of precision could lead to the writer having meaning but being unable to express it)

2) ‘or he inadvertently says something else’ (this seems to relate more to precision, but could be both)

3) ‘or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not’ (this could relate to both as well)

Considering this, it seems that Orwell was more trying to expand on both of the two common problems together, rather than looking at them separately.

Sentence four:

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

Note how the pronoun ‘this’ is used to mean ‘the stuff I just said in the two previous sentences’. Also note how Orwell follows ‘this’ with the phrase ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ to almost rename the points he has made in the previous two sentences. Moreover, this renaming is then followed by an emphasis on the relevance of these traits to bad writing in English prose and political writing with the phrase ‘the most marked characteristic’. In other words, Orwell is taking the previous two sentence’s points about what creates bad writing, and invoking them with the phrase ‘This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’, to create a logical link. He is then able to build on that in the rest of the sentence.

Sentence five:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Note how, after having just said how common this problem is, Orwell is now expanding further on what he means. This is perhaps a more subtle link than the others. Orwell uses the absolute phrase:

As soon as certain topics are raised

to frame the whole sentence, with the idea that these poor English habits happen in reaction to certain topics. This is a good example of not just using either a transitional phrase, pronoun, synonym or partial repetition between every single sentence. Doing this would make the writing tedious and repetitive.

Sentence six:

I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged:

This sentence moves us on to the next paragraph very explicitly by motioning us towards a ‘list’, and using a colon to signify this. The list that follows is also a logical extension from the whole paragraph as it is taking the broader points made and now giving specific examples. It is logical to move from more general comments to more specific ones because we need to start off with a broader point to introduce the idea then we use specific examples to try drive the point home. This is something seen very commonly in the introduction of academic papers where the writer is trying to give the background to the current study, starting from the broad perspective then moving closer and closer to the very specific question the paper is going to answer.

Let’s try another example.

Here are two paragraphs from the beginning of Golding’s novel, Lord of the flies:

Ralph disentangled himself cautiously and stole away through the branches. In a few seconds the fat boy’s grunts were behind him and he was hurrying toward the screen that still lay between him and the lagoon. He climbed over a broken trunk and was out of the jungle.

The shore was fledged with palm trees. These stood or leaned or reclined against the light and their green feathers were a hundred feet up in the air. The ground beneath them was a bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coconuts and palm saplings. Behind this was the darkness of the forest proper and the open space of the scar. Ralph stood, one hand against a grey trunk, and screwed up his eyes against the shimmering water. Out there, perhaps a mile away, the white surf flinked on a coral reef, and beyond that the open sea was dark blue. Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still as a mountain lake—blue of all shades and shadowy green and purple. The beach between the palm terrace and the water was a thin stick, endless apparently, for to Ralph’s left the perspectives of palm and beach and water drew to a point at infinity; and always, almost visible, was the heat.

Let’s look at each sentence from the second paragraph in turn.

Sentence one:

The shore was fledged with palm trees.

This short sentence sets the scene before the longer, more detailed descriptions of the beach and surrounding area. Note how the previous paragraph ends in ‘He climbed over a broken trunk and was out of the jungle.’ The short sentence ‘The shore was fledged with palm trees.’ follows nicely from this, taking us from him being in the forest to being out into the open landscape of the beach that the whole paragraph is describing.

Would you consider this a topic sentence? I would say the paragraph subject is about the scenery on the beach, and Ralph’s discovery of it. It does mention the shore and the palm trees, which are described in more detail later, so it could be said it is a topic sentence. However, it doesn’t feel quite like a clear over-arching topic sentence, more like just the first thing Ralph sees. This is probably because Golding wants to slowly reveal the scene to us, each beautiful little detail at a time.

Sentence two:

These stood or leaned or reclined against the light and their green feathers were a hundred feet up in the air.

Here Golding is using the pronouns ‘These’ and ‘their’ to refer back to the palm trees of the previous sentence.

Sentence three:

The ground beneath them was a bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coconuts and palm saplings.

Here Golding is using the pronoun ‘them’ to refer back to the palm trees in both the previous sentences.

Sentence four:

Behind this was the darkness of the forest proper and the open space of the scar.

Here Golding uses the transitional expression ‘behind’ to link back by telling us the position of the current scene in comparison to the previous, and the pronoun ‘this’ to refer back to the scene described in the previous sentence. We have to be careful when using pronouns because it isn’t always clear what we are referring back to. For example, is ‘this’ referring to the whole scene so far described, including the palm trees and the ground, or is it just referring to the ground? It might not matter too much here, but it could cause confusion if used in a different way.

Sentence five:

Ralph stood, one hand against a grey trunk, and screwed up his eyes against the shimmering water.

This is a more subtle transition. As has been mentioned previously, using a pronoun, partial repetition, synonyms or transitional phrase for every single sentence can make the writing tedious and repetitive. Golding does mention the ‘grey trunk’ of a tree which links back to the palm trees from earlier, but there is none of the aforementioned common methods. The sentence is logical though, taking us from having one part of the scene (palm trees, forest, scar) being described to us having another part being described (the sea). In this way, as we can see by reading the sentences that follow, this whole sentence works as a kind of transition sentence, where Golding uses the movement of Ralph to focus us on another part of the scene.

Sentence six:

Out there, perhaps a mile away, the white surf flinked on a coral reef, and beyond that the open sea was dark blue.

Here Golding uses the position related transitional phrase ‘out there’ which refers back to the ‘shimmering water’ that Ralph was looking at in the previous sentence. This provides a transition whereby Golding introduces the sea in the previous sentence, then expands on it in the next.

Sentence seven:

Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still as a mountain lake—blue of all shades and shadowy green and purple.

Here, Golding uses both the space related transitional expression ‘within’, to show us where in space the scene being described is, and the partial repetition of ‘coral’, where part of the phrase ‘coral reef’ is taken from the previous sentence thus linking us back again. In combination, ‘coral’ links us back and ‘within’ transitions the position we are looking at the coral from.

Sentence eight:

The beach between the palm terrace and the water was a thin stick, endless apparently, for to Ralph’s left the perspectives of palm and beach and water drew to a point at infinity; and always, almost visible, was the heat.

Here Golding uses the positional transitional word ‘between’ + the partial repetition of ‘palm terrace’ and ‘water’ to give us the position of ‘the beach’ in relation to the earlier described scene of palm trees and the sea. This is a nice way to end the paragraph because it links back to both sections of description: the earlier description of the trees and the ground around them (‘palm terrace’), and the later description of the water (‘the water’).

Before we move on, it is interesting to think about the differences between Orwell’s essay example and Golding’s novel one. Orwell’s begins with a clear over-arching topic sentence, and uses techniques like sequence related transitional phrases and ‘either…or’ conjunctions as well as moving from general to more specific. These techniques are more the sort of thing seen when developing an argument, which fits with what Orwell is doing. In contrast, Golding doesn’t really have a clear topic sentence, and uses a lot of positional transitions, which fits with the goal of the paragraph, which is to gradually describe a scene.

Let’s try another example.

Here is a paragraph from this blog post by the writer Sam Harris:

My workflow may sound a little unconventional, but my experience of writing this article fully illustrates my view of free will. Thoughts and intentions arise; other thoughts and intentions arise in opposition. I want to sit down to write, but then I want something else—to exercise, perhaps. Which impulse will win? For the moment, I’m still writing, and there is no way for me to know why—because at other times I’ll think, “This is useless. I’m going to the gym,” and that thought will prove decisive. What finally causes the balance to swing? I cannot know subjectively—but I can be sure that electrochemical events in my brain decide the matter. I know that given the requisite stimulus (whether internal or external), I will leap up from my desk and suddenly find myself doing something else. As a matter of experience, therefore, I can take no credit for the fact that I got to the end of this paragraph.

Let’s look at each sentence in turn:

Sentence one:

My workflow may sound a little unconventional, but my experience of writing this article fully illustrates my view of free will.

Here Harris uses the main clause ‘My workflow may sound a little unconventional’ to refer back to what he has just been describing in the previous paragraph, and then the other main clause ‘my experience of writing this article fully illustrates my view of free will’ to give us a topic sentence which frames what he is going to talk about in this paragraph. The coordinating conjunction ‘but’ links the two clauses together to give us a nice transitional expression which both links back to the previous paragraph and frames the current.

Sentence two:

Thoughts and intentions arise; other thoughts and intentions arise in opposition.

This is a good example of using variety in transition. There are none of the more common techniques, and we have two short clauses separated by a semi-colon. However, the point is moved along as this is the beginning of an explanation about how the article illustrates his view of free will, which he just mentioned in the previous sentence.

Sentence three:

I want to sit down to write, but then I want something else—to exercise, perhaps.

Again, none of the common techniques are used here, but it moves on very nicely. Here we have ‘I want to sit down to write’, which is relating back to ‘thoughts and intentions arise’ from the previous sentence, then we have ‘but then I want something else – to exercise, perhaps’, which relates back to ‘other thoughts and intentions arise in opposition’, also from the previous sentence. These parallel expressions create a link without needing a transitional phrase, pronoun, partial repetition or synonym. Just to make this clear, we have:

1) ‘Thoughts and intentions arise’ linked with ‘I want to sit down to write’ (wanting to sit down to write is a thought and an intention).

2) ‘other thoughts and intentions arise in opposition’ linked with ‘but then I want something else—to exercise, perhaps’ (wanting to exercise is an opposing intention).

Sentence four:

Which impulse will win?

Here Harris uses the noun ‘impulse’ to refer back to the dilemma of either sitting down to write, or exercising, and the technique of framing this reference in a question, which has the effect of both re-framing the previous sentence in a question, and pushing the piece forward to the next sentence, where the reader anticipates the answer. Using a question like this makes it easy to move on to the next sentence because we now have something that needs answering.

Sentence five:

For the moment, I’m still writing, and there is no way for me to know why—because at other times I’ll think, “This is useless. I’m going to the gym,” and that thought will prove decisive.

Here Harris uses the transitional phrase ‘for the moment’ to begin to talk about the question that he just asked (‘Which impulse will win?’) by bringing his example back into the current moment of his writing. Indeed, this whole sentence is starting an answer to that question, meaning it is all being linked back nicely. More specifically, there is also the mention of his ‘writing’, referring back to one of the potential impulses, and ‘the gym’, which refers back to the aforementioned impulse to ‘exercise’.

Sentence six:

What finally causes the balance to swing?

Here Harris uses another question which refers back to the previous two choices of continuing to write or going to the gym, but this time he focuses not on which impulse will win, but what will cause one impulse to win over the other. This is a progression of the question because to give an answer to ‘which impulse will win?’ we need to know what process causes one impulse to win over another, so we can make an informed predication.

Sentence seven:

I cannot know subjectively—but I can be sure that electrochemical events in my brain decide the matter.

Here he answers the question from the previous sentence.

Sentence eight:

I know that given the requisite stimulus (whether internal or external), I will leap up from my desk and suddenly find myself doing something else.

After just ending the previous sentence by talking about what he ‘can be sure of’, he then expands on this in the above sentence, which he begins with the partial repetition of ‘I know’. The partial repetition here actually links back to the earlier part of sentence seven where he tells us what he ‘cannot know’. Combined, these two points mean that sentence eight both links to the early and the latter part of sentence seven.

Sentence nine:

As a matter of experience, therefore, I can take no credit for the fact that I got to the end of this paragraph.

Here Harris uses the transitional expression ‘As a matter of experience, therefore’ which relates back by first framing the sentence with the phrase ‘As a matter of experience’, which refers back to the experience talked about in the previous sentence, then uses the common transitional expression ‘therefore’ to let us know he is making an inference which stems from the experience in the previous sentence.

2.4 Parallelism

Parallelism involves balancing words, phrases or clauses with each other.

One type of balance we sometimes see are parts of speech, or word classes. For example, we might change:

Jeremy enjoys reading and to write.

to

Jeremy enjoys reading and writing.

In the first example we have the gerund ‘reading’ and the infinitive ‘to write’, whereas, in the second sentence, we have the gerund ‘reading’ and the other gerund ‘writing’. At least to my ear, it sounds better to use the same form here because the two activities are equal in the sentence; that is, they are both objects of the verb ‘enjoys’. How about if they weren’t both so closely linked to ‘enjoys’? In some cases, it probably still sounds better to change it, though  it can be argued either way. For example, I would probably change:

Jeremy enjoys reading but he hates to write.

to

Jeremy enjoys reading but he hates writing.

Note that ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are still balanced here; it is just that they are now being contrasted because ‘enjoyed’ and ‘hates’ are opposites of each other. This is a form known as ‘antithesis’, which is one of the many methods used to achieve parallelism.

We also sometimes see parallelism with phrases. For example, compare these two sentences:

The fish smells absolutely terrible but tastes good.

The fish smells absolutely terrible but tastes surprisingly good.

I prefer the second because it is comparing the adverb phrase ‘absolutely terrible’ with the other adverb phrase ‘surprisingly good’, which creates a nice balance.

Techniques used to achieve parallelism

There are a number of techniques used to achieve parallelism. We will explore a few next. You might find it fun to try coming up with your own for each one, as an exercise.

1) Antithesis

‘Antithesis’ is the linking of two words, phrases or clauses which have the opposite, or largely contrasted, meaning. For example:

I am disappointed but relieved.

While these aren’t exact opposites, ‘disappointed’ and ‘relieved’ are contrasting, and this technique works nicely by combining two contrasting emotions together. When thinking of this example, I initially thought of using the two most opposite emotions I could think of, to drive home the point. However, I wondered if one can have both opposite emotions at the same time:

I am happy but sad.

Perhaps a better example would be:

I both love and hate her.

Can one love and hate the same person? Antithesis is interesting because it makes us ask all sorts of questions like this.

We probably more commonly see antithesis with phrases and clauses. An example of a phrase is the one we saw earlier:

The fish smells absolutely terrible but tastes surprisingly good.

Finally, we also see it with clauses, as in the famous quote:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

I love this example because it has two antithetical components: ‘small step/giant leap’ and ‘man/mankind’.

2) Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence to emphasise the point. It is common in poetry, verse, political speeches and sometimes in literature.

An example of anaphora is something like:

As a thinking person you must be critical of everyone: be critical of politicians, be critical of scientists, be critical of leaders, be critical of your heroes, and, most of all, be critical of yourself.

It would be hard to read the above sentence and not remember that being critical was central to the point! But it isn’t just emphasis that is important to us here. Notice how this repetition is creating a balance between each of the elements, forming the parallelism.

Let’s look at a few famous examples.

One example is this quote from a Winston Churchill speech:

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .”

Another example is the following from Dicken’s A tale of two cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Note how Dicken’s uses both anaphora in his repetition of words (‘it was the’), and antithesis (e.g., ‘best/worst’), to create a strongly paralleled piece.

3) Epistrophe

Epistrophe is very similar to anaphora: it is also repetition, but at the end of the sentence, rather than at the beginning. For example, in a speech in 1965 Lyndon Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

An example I particularly enjoy is this quote by Richard Feynman:

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

4) Symploce

Symploce is the combination of both anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence) and epistrophe (repetition at the end of a sentence). For example, in Orthodoxy Chesterton wrote:

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Note how ‘the madman’ is repeated at the beginning of both sentences (anaphora) and the word ‘reason’ is used at the end of both (epistrophe). This works to emphasise the differences between the two ideas. In this particular quote, it works well because we begin with the conventional idea in the first sentence, then are given Chesterton’s point in the second. Because the second sentence is less conventional, linking it to the more common idea in the first sentence highlights its originality.

5) Asyndeton

Aysndeton involves leaving out conjunctions in between words, phrases or clauses to speed up the flow of the sentence, link the expressions together more compactly, and create a sense that there is more missing from the list. It is most prominently used in speeches, poetry, verse and sometimes in fiction. I suggest to be extra careful in your use of asyndeton because it is very often considered an error known as ‘comma splicing’. I would guess that it is almost always considered an error in formal writing such as scientific papers or essays. As for fiction, my guess is it variable, with some editors disliking it always, others finding it fine, and, perhaps, some only liking it if it used in an effective way. For this reason, if you are thinking of using it, be sure to check if it is OK first. Let’s look at a few examples next.

Asyndeton between words

An example of asyndeton between single words might be something like:

Every time I look at her I see light, love, lust, and yet she barely notices my existence.

If we compare this to an example without asyndeton with the conjunction ‘and’ in, we get:

Every time I look at her I see light, love and lust, and yet she barely notices my existence.

Though only subtle, the first example – which does use asyendeton – is more compact, perhaps resulting in the words feeling even more connected. There is also the sense that the ‘light, love, lust’ is not all the person is feeling. By not finishing the list with the conjunction ‘and’ it feels like there is more to say. This could be because the emotion is too overpowering to continue, words cannot explain it or there are just too many emotions to express.

Do you think this should be considered a method for parallelism? The main argument in the affirmative is that by getting rid of the ‘and’ each word has the same rhythm as the last. In this way, asyndeton works as a sort of rhythmic parallel, making the words line up in a nice neat line.

An example from the beginning of a sentence is:

Slowly, deliberately, we marched in silence.

This could be written without asyndeton, with the conjunction ‘and’, in a number of ways:

Slowly and deliberately we marched in silence.

We marched slowly and deliberately in silence.

Asyndeton between phrases

Asyndeton can also be used between phrases. For example:

Whenever I tried to sleep I heard endless doubt, pathetic self-pity, hideous envy.

This can be written without the asyndeton, with the conjunction ‘and’ in, as:

Whenever I tried to sleep I heard endless doubt, pathetic self-pity and hideous envy.

Again, in the first example, the words are more compact, and there is the feeling that this list is only the beginning of the descriptions of the things he hears in his head when he tries to sleep. This emphasises just how many different feelings there are stopping him from sleeping. In contrast, the ‘and’ makes it feel more like a list that is more concrete.

Asyndeton between clauses

Asyndeton can also be used between clauses.

Actually, we have already seen an example of this from Dicken’s A tale of two cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Here Dicken’s links 9 clauses with no conjunctions. So now this quote uses antithesis, anaphora and asyndeton.

6) Climax

Building up words, phrases or clauses to a climax is another method for structuring them. This usually involves starting with the least important and moving to the most. An example from Wald’s A Generation in Search of a Future is:

“I think we’ve reached a point of great decision, not just for our nation, not only for all humanity, but for life upon the earth.”

Note how it builds from ‘nation’ to ‘humanity’ and finally climaxes with ‘life upon the earth’. Would you regard this as parallelism? On the one hand, they are building in height, but, on the other, they are all going in the same direction. Whatever the case, this is an interesting technique for structuring words, phrases, or clauses together.