Sentence Order within Paragraphs

Sentence Order within Paragraphs concerns the organizational logic behind sentences in a paragraph.

Readers can generally follow the logic of a discussion within a paragraph when a paragraph

  • is unified by a single purpose
  • when sentences within paragraphs follow expected organizational frameworks (e.g., problem to solution, chronological order, causal order).

Paragraphs that lack a central idea and that wander from subject to subject are apt to confuse readers, making them wonder what they should pay attention to and why. In other words paragraphs are not a careless group of sentences about a common topic; rather, a logic informs the order of sentences within paragraphs.

Rhetors commonly use the the following organizational plans to organize sentences within paragraphs:

  • Coordinate Order
  • Deductive Order
  • Inductive Order
  • Topic Sentence

Coordinate Order

Sentences that operate at the same hierarchical order in terms of abstractions are following a coordinate order.

Below is an example of coordinate order, which was noted by Francis Christensen in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric (NY: Harper & Row, 1967 based on a paragraph by Bergen Evans’s in his book, Comfortable Words:

  1. He [the native speaker] may, of course, speak a form of English that marks him as coming from a rural or an unread group.
  2. But if he doesn’t mind being so marked, there’s no reason why he should change.
  3. Samuel Johnson kept a Staffordshire burr in his speech all his life.
  4. In Burns’ mouth the despised lowland Scots dialect served just as well as the “correct” English spoken by ten million of his southern contemporaries.
  5. Lincoln’s vocabulary and his way of pronouncing certain words were sneered at by many better educated people at the time, but he seemed to be able to use the English language as effectively as his critics.

Deductive Order

Most paragraphs in academic and technical discourse move deductively–that is, the first or second sentence presents the topic or theme of the paragraph and the subsequent sentences illustrate and explicate this theme.

Below is an example of deductive order, which Francis Christensen provides in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric (NY: Harper & Row, 1967) based on a paragraph he excerpted from he excerpted from Jacob Bronowski’s The Common Sense of Science

  1. The process of learning is essential to our lives.
    • All higher animals seek it deliberately.
      • They are inquisitive and they experiment.
        • An experiment is a sort of harmless trial run of some action which we shall have to make in the real world; and this, whether it is made in the laboratory by scientists or by fox-cubs outside their earth.
          • The scientist experiments and the cub plays; both are learning to correct their errors of judgment in a setting in which errors are not fatal.
            • Perhaps this is what gives them both their air of happiness and freedom in these activities.

[ Deductive Order, Deductive Reasoning, Deductive Writing ]

Inductive Order

While writers are under increasing pressure to organize information deductively, they can–and do–write inductively.

A paragraph follows an Inductive Order when the topic sentence, the main idea, is presented at the end of a paragraph. The inductive order is a good choice if the aim is to address controversial topics or emotional matters.

Readers of novels expect to be delighted with surprise endings. In contrast, readers of nonfiction don’t expect the surprise ending, so they can be especially appreciative of a carefully constructed surprise. Note below, for example, the way Dianne Lynch surprises you with the line, “you are using the Internet to fight back”–a line in direct juxtaposition to the first 122 words of her short essay “Afghan Women Reach Out Via the Web.”

  • You can’t laugh or talk aloud in public, and even your shoes must make no sound. Wearing cosmetics or showing your ankles is punishable by whipping; women have had their fingers amputated for wearing nail polish.
  • You paint the windows of your house black so you cannot be seen from the outside. You are forbidden from walking on your balcony or in your backyard. It has been years since the sun shone on your face. And all public references to you have disappeared.
  • You are a woman in Afghanistan today, living under the regime of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.
  • And if you are one of the nearly 2,000 women who belong to The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, you are using the Internet to fight back.

[ Inductive Order, Inductive Reasoning, Inductive Writing ]

Interrogative Order

Asking an interrogative sentence–i.e., a sentence that asks a direct question and ends with a quotation mark, can be an engaging way to organize a paragraph. For example, consider how Valerie Steele’s anecdotal tone and dialogue in the opening sentences of her essay on fashion in academia prepare the reader for her thesis:

Once, when I was a graduate student at Yale, a history professor asked me about my dissertation. “I’m writing about fashion,” I said.

That’s interesting. Italian or German?”

It took me a couple of minutes, as thoughts of Armani flashed through my mind, but finally I realized what he meant. “Not fascism,” I said. “Fashion. As in Paris.”

“Oh.” There was a long silence, and then, without another word, he turned and walked away.

Fashion still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence. Some of those to whom I spoke while preparing this article requested anonymity or even refused to address the subject. (“The F-Word.” Lingua Franca April 1991: 17–18.)

Topic Sentence

Notice, in particular, how Chris Goodrich cues readers to the purpose of his paragraph (and article) in the first sentence of his essay “Crossover Dreams”:

Norman Cantor, New York University history professor and author, most recently, of Inventing the Middle Ages, created a stir this spring when he wrote a letter to the newsletter of the American Historical Association declaring that “no historian who can write English prose should publish more than two books with a university press–one for tenure, and one for full professor After that (or preferably long before) work only in the trade market.” Cantor urged his fellow scholars to seek literary agents to represent any work with crossover potential. And he didn’t stop there: As if to be sure of offending the entire academic community, Cantor added, “If you are already a full professor, your agent should be much more important to you than the department chair or the dean.”

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