John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Five sentences

A paragraph, students are being taught, should have five sentences. The first sentence, the topic sentence, announces the subject of the paragraph. The three sentences that follow provide information to support the topic sentence. A concluding sentence summarizes what has been said in the previous four sentences, for the benefit of a reader with an extremely short attention span. Thus students learn how to construct a proper paragraph in five sentences.

Barbara Phillips Long, a devoted reader of this blog, has little patience with this mechanical approach to writing. She pointed out the prevalence of the five-sentence model in a comment on yesterday’s post. She followed up with a private e-mail listing such sources for the practice. They included, A Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prep site, and Mrs. Hicks’s Powerpoint on the paragraph.
Ms. Long doubts that this highly artificial five-paragraph structure appears anywhere outside textbooks.

This Procrustean pedagogy appears to be widespread, with little apparent benefit for students. During the two grisly semesters that I taught freshman composition at Syracuse University in the 1970s, we were hobbled by the requirement to use Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist. The “Baker essay” also had a fivefold structure, with a paragraph stating an assertion, three paragraphs of support, and a paragraph of conclusion. The products of this exercise were entirely mechanical and lifeless. Looking at the papers of undergraduates I taught in other classes, I saw little evidence that their schooling in the “Baker essay” had done much to enlarge their powers of argument and organization.

As I have said before, mastery of the craft of writing has always been limited to a very small minority. The system of public education that we inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and which has largely broken down) merely aimed to provide the majority of students with enough basic literacy and numeracy to function in an industrial society. Many of my students at Syracuse were less interested in learning, as such, than in acquiring a veneer of private-university status to fit them for the upper middle class. Don’t, pray, tell me that it’s all the fault of the Sixties, because you should remember perfectly well that the Fifties were the era of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” articles. There was no golden age when everyone who got a diploma could write clearly, forcefully, and grammatically.

In the face of an educational system that shortchanges its students, both the well-off and the poor, we do what we can. In blogs like this one we try to undermine ill-informed dogmatism about grammar and usage. In our classrooms we try to nudge students beyond the silly mechanical formulas that they have been burdened with. In our own writing we try to model an informed and flexible literacy. We know every day as we push the boulder up the hill that it will roll back down again, but we persevere.

For the benefit of those who haven’t noticed, the preceding is a five-paragraph essay in which each paragraph has the five-sentence structure. This is what you want for your children?


  1. Your blog is always a bright spot in my day. Aside from the delightful "Procrustean pedagogy" I look forward to your return to your normal crisp and lively writing style.

  2. The mechanical approach should be used to raise the unskilled toward competence, not lower the gifted to mediocrity.

  3. The model can be fine for essays and academic writing. It doesn't work for journalism. I teach my students that paragraphs should be no longer than four or five type-written lines, max, and usually shorter than that.

  4. The five-sentence rule for paragraphs leads to visual monotony and viseral boredom. I wondered why your paragraphs all looked the same and seemed strangely redundant until you explained in the last paragraph that you were just following the rule. Given that most writing students are instructed to vary sentence length, it's odd that they would be taught not to vary paragraph length. Perhaps paragraphs should be numbered so their places in the entire piece are readily apparent.

    Incidentally, the first four words a teacher should utter on the first day of class are, "I might be wrong." As a student half a century ago, I thought teachers must be right.

  5. Someone somewhere once said that we don't know what we don't know. I always think of this aphorism whenever the issue of good writing is concerned. I fear that most "educated" people don't care about what constitutes good writing because they aren't trained in the mechanics of writing, i.e., grammar. As such, it shouldn't be any surprise that we see some of the deplorable writing that we see in the culture. What is truly sad to me is the fact that some of these people are gatekeepers at major publications and are guilty of allowing all manner of garbage into their pages.

    Oh, the lament of a copy editor.

  6. What typingtalker said--exactly.

    The five-paragraph essay is just an exercise.

    It helps the inexperienced learn to think--to support his ideas, instead of writing "It was a good book" and then getting stuck because he feels he has nothing else to say about it. It forces him to examine his own thoughts and try to express them in a way that will convince the reader (i.e., introducing him to the idea that it's important to have a purpose and to keep the audience in mind).

    On the other hand, it can be torture for anyone who knows these things and has something to say to try to conform to this template.

    Another exercise that can be torture is the one in which you are forced to write in the style of another writer. Yes, it makes you pay close attention to it and learn to recognize it, but geez duplicating the style of others can be just too hard. And who's to say that just because you have trouble duplicating someone else's style that you're not recognizing it? Silly exercise.

  7. And yet, how else are you going to teach? Start with a basic model, then move on to other models.

    I'm following my children's progress in the school system that noted for its excellence, and sometimes I weep at the jargon-filled letters sent home, the lack of deep instruction in certain areas, the diversion into "feel-good" activities at the expense of education time.

    There is one teacher, however, who insists on students submitting drafts of their work, and encourages a focus on rewriting and improving their writing. My daughter hates him, but he gives me the opportunity to point out the value of what he's teaching.

    But in any event, rules are rules, but students should be taught them so they know when to break them.

  8. I was just beginning to wonder if the rules of Spanish grammar can be so significantly different from the English ones. In Spanish writing, a paragraph may be constructed by only one sentence; even if this sentence consists of one single word (= a verb), it's still a paragraph... as it can be expressive and explicit enough, anyhow.

  9. Of course one starts with a basic model or models. But a fellow teaching assistant at Syracuse once asked a freshman composition class what a paragraph was. A hand shot up, and the answer came: "Six sentences." The problem I see is the number of students, including at the college level, who have been given some basic model and who have not moved on to any great sophistication.

  10. I love the essay -- reading it is like driving down the Pennsylvania turnpike: ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. Repeat until the end.

    It is time to get some fresh ideas into textbooks. I have fantasies about some foundation deciding to stock up on unemployed copy editors who would check facts and rules in textbooks, edit them comprehensively, and share the improved results.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  11. When I was in college, one of my English professors, reacting to my newspaperish short paragraphs told me that I should have three paragraphs to a page (double space, of course).

    Years later one of my publishers, a PhD in speech, exclaimed after reading my manuscript: "Did you ever hear of topic sentences?" I had to think a minute about what she meant.

  12. This seems like a problem that isn't limited to learning how to write. On the one hand, a teacher wants to convey certain basic mechanical skills, as typing talker says, like constructing cohesive sentences and organizing thoughts. Given the starting point for most people, getting them to lay things out in this mechanical way should (is the theory, I believe) get students used to some overall principles that most come to the classroom without.

    Even assuming students can learn this (some percentage never will, of course), the idea is that you can _then_ move to a more interesting, and significantly harder, problem: how do you make writing interesting? It sounds like the majority never get to this stage of writing. It seems clear to me why this might be: how do you teach someone style? How can you get someone to move from ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump to something that flows and that delights?

    I take guitar lessons with the idea of learning to play blues; I am, however, a wretched player. But it has afforded me the opportunity to see the musical version of this process. Teachers can get you to play blues scales and follow chord changes. But how do you turn this knowledge into creating a blues solo that anyone would ever want to hear? "Listen!" they command, offering dozens of examples of famous blues players. The idea, as with writing, is that exposure to great models, plus an earnest desire to learn, plus practice, plus -- here's the rub -- some ineffable quality of being able to internalize all this results in the student learning to solo. Most never make it to that point.

    FWIW, every music teacher says the same thing -- once you've learned the rules, you have to get to the point where you don't need to pay attention to them. Thus with writing; if you're still thinking about 5 paragraphs and topic sentences, you're not ready.

  13. This turgid format does have the benefit of being easily parse-able, though. If you are an adult English learner, for instance, then the very predictable structure makes the difficult task of extracting information from the text somewhat easier. In the same way, scientific papers usually heave to a fairly rigid format so that other researchers easily can jump to the relevant bits without having to read through the whole thing.

    And while the structure of "statement, x*exposition, restatement" is an overly rigid form for a paragraph, it's not a bad structure if you relax the form and allow yourself to spread it over more than one paragraph, for instance. You want your text to be understandable, after all, and if you or your reader isn't very familiar with a language, then keeping to a predictable structure is a good way to achieve it.

  14. To this blog post and to typingtalker's comment, I say "amen."

  15. Recommend a remedial text for those of us with children that deserve a better English education than their parents received. Something geared for adults tutoring their kids.

  16. "... the same way, scientific papers usually heave to a fairly rigid format "

    Heave to? Are you saying that science writing backs the jib amidst the grammatical storm, or what?

    After all, if you don't heave to, you may heave, too.

  17. I recall a five-paragraph essay form in high school. Is this now reduced to a five-sentence paragraph?

    Eventually it will be a five-word sentence. "Immigration: vigor, diversity, population; good!"

  18. @JoAnne: That provides an interesting writing exercise though: write the perfect 5-word sentence! It would have to introduce a topic, support it, and then conclude. Extra points for having a subject and verb...

  19. "Heave to? Are you saying that science writing backs the jib amidst the grammatical storm, or what?"

    I meant to write "hew to...", but I like your interpretation better. Bands of science pirates sailing the linguistic seas, raiding other subjects for compound verbs, burying chests of latinized vocabulary, that sort of thing.

  20. I tested out of freshman composition at Syracuse and I can't recall anyone in any of my other classes saying that a paragraph was five sentences (I once got dinged for overusing the copula, though.) I do remember someone from high school extolling Baker, but I don't think it ever used that system again once the papers were turned in. I'd argue that one of the keys to getting anyone, student or not, to think about writing beyond this model, or any mechanical model, is to get them to read a lot and write a lot. (Reading and writing are warp and woof.) I fear little of either gets done at length. JoAnn's sentence, sadly, seems entirely probable as a writing style. After all, it'd fit on Twitter.

  21. My all-time least favourite school teacher, who taught seventh grade, insisted that in her class every paragraph must contain at least seven sentences, every sentence must contain at least eleven words, and every sentence in a submitted piece of writing must begin with a different word.

    There is evidence that the "seven sentences" rule was connected to the fact that she was teaching seventh grade at the time.

    Copy editors can't be hired to perform assassinations, can they? :-)

  22. When I was in high school and college I tested well, and so managed to test out of high school English and freshman composition. As a result, I never learned to not split infinitives, or avoid ending sentences with prepositions, or to put two spaces after periods. Later, I thought I shouldn't have done that (tested out of those classes), since I ended up having to teach myself about sentence structure, etc. Now when I read the foregoing, I think I just spared myself a lot of unlearning! Could that be why I ended up a copyeditor?