The Creation of the Paragraph

The paragraph has only been around since about 1795, and the generally accepted rules for paragraphs have only been around since about 1865. That’s when Alexander Bain came up with six rules for building paragraphs. For example, each paragraph should have a topic sentence that summarizes the main idea of the paragraph. Bain’s six rules were whittled down to three by successive generations of grammarians, but the general form remained.

But it turns out that the rules were wrong. More recently academics have analyzed writing samples and it turns out that, for example, only 10% of the paragraphs have topic sentences, and that is using a generous definition of topic sentence. Most good writing doesn’t follow the Bain rules. This might have been obvious if teachers had checked, yet these rules were believed for over 100 years.


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