Q: What are the rules on one-sentence paragraphs? I tend to see the regular use of them as a sign of tabloid journalism.
A: Many people seem to have been told, sometime during their school careers, that a one-sentence paragraph is not legitimate. It’s this belief, however, that’s not legit.
Modern dictionaries define a paragraph as a piece of writing consisting of one or more sentences devoted to a single point or topic. It begins on a new line and is usually indented.
(We don’t indent the beginning of paragraphs on our blog. We start them flush left, with a line of white space between them. This seems to be a common convention of online writing.)
As for how many sentences in a paragraph, the writer can use as many—or as few—as the topic requires.
Quite often, as you’ve probably noticed if you read much fiction, a paragraph consists of one speaker’s quoted words. In fact, it might have just a single word:
There are no “rules” of English grammar about the number of sentences per paragraph. This is a matter of style, not grammar.
On our blog, for example, we often use one- or two-sentence paragraphs, confining ourselves to just a few items of information per paragraph.
We think this is easier for people to read, especially in a format consisting of a narrow vertical column with other matter abutting on either side.
But our book Origins of the Specious, with its vacant margins and roomier format, has a more classic style of paragraphing. We used as many sentences per paragraph as we needed to complete a particular point or thought.
Personally, we don’t like extremely long paragraphs, since the eye tends to get lost without a few geographical landmarks as reference points. It’s fatiguing to read a paragraph that takes up page after page, even if it’s legitimately devoted to a single argument.
Many famous writers—Samuel Johnson among them—have written paragraphs of only one or two sentences.
In The History of the English Paragraph (1894), Edwin Herbert Lewis scrutinized dozens of famous writers, examining several hundred paragraphs from the works of each.
For the works he studied, he calculated the percentage of single-sentence paragraphs in Defoe at 62 percent; Bunyan, 61; Laurence Sterne, 55; Spenser, 48; Scott, 45; Dickens, 43; Fielding, 38; Hobbes, 35; Bacon, 32; George Eliot, 27; Johnson, 27. The writers Locke, Lamb, Swift, De Quincey, Addison, Ruskin, Dryden, Sidney, and Milton were in the 18 to 10 percent range. (The novelists among these writers were in some cases using one-sentence paragraphs to quote speakers.)
Paragraphing itself is very old. Lewis said that indented sections of writing can be found in some of the oldest English manuscripts.
“In a manuscript of the sixth century,” he wrote, “quotations are written as in modern paragraphs,—carried in evenly from the marginal line.”
One-sentence paragraphs are found in “every period in English Literature,” Lewis said, but they were more common in the 18th than in the 19th century.
Reading between the lines, it appears that prejudice against the one-sentence paragraph came from 19th-century writers on rhetoric and composition.
Lewis quotes a contemporary of his who believed that “a paragraph is to a sentence what a sentence is to a word.”
And this hierarchy—from word to sentence to paragraph—may have encouraged the belief that a paragraph must be a group of sentences.
Lewis notes that most of the multiple-sentence definitions he found in books of rhetoric and composition “were framed primarily for purposes of pedagogy.”
“This,” he said, “may explain why so much stress is laid upon the idea of a paragraph as a sentence group.”
Teachers, he suggested, wanted to discourage pupils from simply making each new sentence a paragraph.
It seems, though, that they taught their pupils too well.
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