Paragraph: Issue, Point, Discussion

In high school, we were taught that a paragraph begins with a topic sentence--a sentence that states the main point of the paragraph--and follows with evidence supporting the topic sentence.

It is true that many paragraphs are like that. But it is equally true that many are not. When it comes to writing in the real world, paragraphs can take a number of forms.

An excellent discussion of the forms a paragraph can take is found in George Gopen's Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective. Gopen, a professor of rhetoric at Duke University, says that paragraphs are best understood as consisting of three parts: an issue, a point, and a discussion.

The issue puts the point of the paragraph in context. The point is the old-fashioned topic sentence. The discussion is an elaboration of the point.

Here's an example of a paragraph with an issue, point, and discussion. It appears in Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book The Tipping Point:

A book, I was taught long ago in English class, is a living and breathing document that grows richer with each new reading. But I never quite believed that until I wrote The Tipping Point. I wrote my book without any clear expectation of who would read it, or what, if anything, it would be useful for. It seemed presumptuous to think otherwise. But in the year since its publication, I have been inundated with the comments of readers. . . .

Here, the main point--that Gladwell did not learn something in particular until he wrote his book--is stated in not the first, as my high school teacher might have wanted, but in the second sentence. The first sentence instead introduces what Gopen would call the issue: the context in which the point is made. The rest of the paragraph goes on to discuss the point, documenting the interplay between Gladwell and his readers and how it has changed his understanding of his book.

Here is another example, with a longer issue and the point coming later in the paragraph. It's from Thinking, Fast and Slow, the 2011 book by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman:

When you are asked what you are thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your experience without you knowing how they got there. . . .

Here, the main point is stated in the third sentence: But that is not the only way . . . The first two lay out the issue, providing context for the point.

Take a look at your paragraphs. Do they all begin with a topic sentence? Or do some of them begin instead with an issue before stating the main point?

Here's a Comma Doing Good Work

The economist Kenneth Arrow died this week, and in his obituary in the Washington Post, we find, in the following sentence, a comma doing good work:

Dr. Arrow came from a prodigious family of economists that includes his nephew Lawrence H. Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University, former treasury secretary and former director of the White House National Economic Council; and his late brother-in-law Paul A. Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, in 1970. 

It's the comma near the very end, before the phrase in 1970. Without the comma, the sentence might mean that Paul Samuelson was the first of two or more Americans to win the Nobel Prize in 1970. With the comma, it makes it clear that Professor Samuelson was the first and only American winner in 1970.

Why is that? Set apart with a comma, in 1970 becomes an incidental piece of information. In other words, it can be deleted from the sentence without impairing the meaning of the sentence:

Dr. Arrow came from a prodigious family of economists that includes his nephew Lawrence H. Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University, former treasury secretary and former director of the White House National Economic Council; and his late brother-in-law Paul A. Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics.

The important point here is that Professor Arrow's brother-in-law, like Professor Arrow himself, won the Nobel Prize; that he won it in 1970 is purely incidental. 

Unconvinced? Consider the following sentence, which I hope reports an unfamiliar fact:

Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings became the first player to hit a home run in 1876.

What is special about this claim? Was it that Ross Barnes was the first player of many to hit a home run in 1876? Or was it that Ross Barnes was the first player to ever hit a home run, and he did so in 1876? The point is that, without a comma before in 1876, it's hard to tell.

As it turns out, Ross Barnes was the first player to ever hit a home run, and he did so in 1876. We can make that clear by separating in 1876 from the rest of the sentence with a comma:

Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings became the first player to hit a home run, in 1876.

Hooray for the Long Sentence

It's always exciting to come across an intricate sentence pulled off with great success. Consider this sentence, for instance, which appears in the December 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought in an article by Mark Charles Nolan, of University College, Cork:

Even though Dutch physician Bernard Mandeville was credited with being the first to formulate the economic terms “division of labor” and “laissez-faire,” Friedrich August Hayek, in his lecture read to the British Academy on March 23, 1966, the penultimate year of Lionel Robbins’s five-year term as president of the academy, told his London audience that he wished to concentrate on Mandeville’s “definitive breakthrough in modern thought”: namely, the twin ideas of evolution and spontaneous order.

There are several things to note about the sentence. Take the details, for starters. The "character" of Bernard Mandeville is fleshed out with the appositive Dutch physician. Hayek's lecture is given a precise date, and in another appositive we are told that 1966 was Lionel Robbins's next-to-last year as president. There is the well-chosen quotation from Hayek: Hayek's actual words, labeling Mandeville's two ideas as a "definitive breakthrough," are important to the argument. I especially like told his London audience, a bit of imagery that also indirectly identifies the site of the lecture.

With a sentence this long, the end receives an especial amount of stress. We can commend the author for not only putting what appears to be the most important information at the end, but also for introducing it with a colon, which brings the sentence to a temporary halt (allowing the reader a welcome chance to catch his breath) and heightens the emphasis even further.

The author does flirt with disaster, of course. The sentence is the opening one of the article, and I'm not sure it is generally wise to begin an opening sentence with a dependent clause. And there is a long subject-verb interruption. But the sentence has a momentum that carries the reader past those, and in the end it turns out just fine.

Few--or a Few?

Recently, on its Lingua Franca blog, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the failure of the publisher Elsevier to provide responsible copy editing to two Russian and French coauthors.

One inaccuracy that the publisher failed to correct was the use of a few when the authors (whose native languages are not English) should have used few. What's the difference?

As the author of the blog post, Geoffrey Pullum, explains, both mean a small number. But here's the difference. Few suggests a quantity of something so small that there might as well be none. A few suggests a quantity that, although small, is nevertheless large enough to matter.

There are few dangers to worry about means that what you are about to do is pretty safe. There are a few dangers to worry about means that you should be on guard--chances are, nothing will happen, but you should be on the lookout, just in case.

When Writing, Bring Subject and Verb Together

What makes the following sentence difficult to read?

The proposal that the best place to build the new factory is in Smith County is gaining in popularity.

What makes it difficult is that a long relative clause (that the best place to build the new factory is in Smith County) comes between the subject (the proposal) and the verb (is gaining).

Readers like to get past the subject to the verb quickly. In the sentence above, they can't do that: the relative clause interrupts the movement from the subject to the verb.

Better would be to revise the sentence and eliminate the subject-verb interruption. Here is one solution:

One proposal gaining in popularity is to build the new factory in Smith County.

Now, the verb comes immediately after the subject.

Look at a document you've written recently. Do you see a lot of subject-verb interruptions? How can you revise to eliminate them?

How to Emphasize an Idea

What's the most important idea in the following sentence?

"In order to increase our sales, we must become more active online as well as maintain our traditional print catalog business and continue our direct-marketing campaign, which is exactly what our internal review concluded."

Answer? Only the writer knows for sure. But what if I told you that the most important idea was maintaining the print catalog business? Would you have ever guessed that?

Probably not, given the structure of the sentence. Why is that? 

George Gopen, in Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective, explains that ideas in a sentence receive their greatest emphasis if they appear before a colon, semi-colon, or period--places of what Gopen calls full syntactic closure.

In the sentence above, the reference to maintaining the print catalog business is buried in the middle of the sentence, far away from the sentence's only place of full syntactic closure, which is before the period at the end. So let's revise the sentence to put the most important idea there. We get something like this:

"In order to increase our sales, we must, exactly as our internal review concluded, not only continue our direct-marketing campaign and become more active online, but also maintain our traditional print catalog business."

With the most important idea now at a place of full syntactic closure, the writer stands a much better chance of communicating successfully with his readers.

How to Begin an Article

In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

No, those aren't my words. But I bet they caught your attention. Not the way a post on a professional blog usually begins, right?

They're the opening words of George Orwell's classic essay "Shooting an Elephant." And they demonstrate how surprise--the unexpected, the unusual--can make for an effective beginning.

Orwell's opening sentence is also effective because it is concrete--he begins with a geographical detail--and makes an unusual and candid observation. We don't normally profess to being hated.

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones." So begins the scientist Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow. As Steven Pinker explains in his Sense of Style, Dawkins here avoids the cliché ("Since the dawn of time") and the banal ("Recently, scholars have been increasingly concerned with . . .").

Even in academic writing, one can find arresting beginnings. Here is how the economist Paul Samuelson opens a 1965 article in the American Economic Review: "A rope will hang in the shape of a catenary, y(x) = a1eλx + a2e−λx, because even a dumb rope knows that such a shape will minimize its center of gravity." The anthropomorphic rope and unusual vocabulary word give the sentence its interest.

Understatement can be effective, as in this brilliant opening line by the old New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling: "Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments."

When in doubt, begin with a person--and better yet, a person and a difficulty. "Abraham Wald stuck out as a student at the University of Vienna. He was an Ostjude, an Eastern Jew from Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) and thus was a member of the poor immigrant community that flooded Vienna after World War I," begin Till Dueppe and E. Roy Weintraub in a 2016 article in History of Political Economy.

I'll close by considering how might one improve the beginning of an academic article. Here are the opening sentences to a 2016 article in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics:

Signaling theory is often used to explain seemingly inefficient investments. The peacock's large and colorful tail is often explained as a costly signal from males with high but unobservable reproductive value.

For an academic economics article, the authors give us much to work with in the second sentence. But, given the audience and their expectations, the authors miss at least one opportunity for a captivating beginning:

Consider the peacock.

Tweaking a Mission Statement

I've been reading company mission statements lately and came across an interesting one from a writing standpoint. It's the mission statement of the Hospital Corporation of America, better known as HCA, and it reads like this:

Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life.

As a piece of writing, the statement raises two questions. One, where is the best place to put the adverbial phrase above all else? Two, should it even be there in the first place?

First, placement. The phrase could be correctly placed in several places. Here are the four best candidates. I'll number them for ease of reference.

1. Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life.

2. We, above all else, are committed to the care and improvement of human life.

3. We are committed, above all else, to the care and improvement of human life.

4. We are committed to the care and improvement of human life above all else.

We can rule out version 4. Although the end of a sentence is the place of greatest emphasis, in (4) the phrase seems tacked on rather than emphasized, causing the sentence to end anticlimactically. Besides, I think it is better to emphasize improvement of human life than above all else.

We can rule out version 2 as well. There, the placement of above all else interrupts the sentence before it builds momentum, and it seems to say more about the we of the sentence than the mission of the company.

That leaves versions 1 (the original) and 3. What bothers me about above all else in the original is that, coming as it does at the beginning of the statement, it sounds defensive. Why wouldn't HCA be committed to the care and improvement of human life, above all else? It functions like a warning label that says, "No matter what you know or think about our company, we really do care about patients and their health."

Version 3, I think, is best. There, the phrase occurs after committed, an interruption that occurs late enough in the sentence to allow it to build some momentum and that heightens the sense that something important will follow.

But should the phrase be there in the first place? Besides sounding defensive, it's a phrase that more naturally modifies the last item of a series than a single item: recall Polonius's long, advice-laden speech to his son Laertes, which ends with "This above all: to thine own self be true." I say leave it out or place it as in version 3.

Use the Right Subjects to Tell the Right "Story"

Got a "story" to tell about your business? Great! But how do you make sure your readers really get the message that your business is the star of the show?

Here's the answer: Make the name of your business the grammatical subject of most or all of the sentences.  

What we choose as our grammatical subjects determines who or what our readers think our "story" is about.

Here, for example, is a story about the Acme Computer Company:

The Acme Computer Company strives to provide a stimulating and convenient work environment for our employees. Acme believes in the power of architecture and interior design to drive productive work. In fact, last year we won an award for our innovative use of space in fostering collaboration among our employees. As we look to the year ahead, Acme will continue to seek the very best in cutting-edge office design.

Note that Acme or a pronoun representing Acme appears as the subject of every sentence. 

Here's that same passage but with different grammatical subjects:

Stimulating and convenient work environments are important to the operations of the Acme Computer Company. Strategically designed architecture and interior spaces drive company productivity, with an award-winning innovative use of space fostering collaboration among employees. In the year ahead, cutting-edge office design will continue to be a priority for Acme's executive management team.

Note how the subjects in the second passage create a different story, one not about Acme itself but about Acme's interior spaces.

By controlling the information that appears as the subjects of our sentences, we can control our reader's experience of a passage, especially what they think our story is about.