John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, 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?