Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The end-of-paragraph transition

A strange element in the writing of many college students: the end-of-paragraph transition, a final sentence stating the main idea of the paragraph that will follow. This kind of transition creates two problems. One: the shift to something new at the end of a paragraph damages that paragraph’s unity. Two: the sentence that begins the new paragraph, identical or nearly identical to the sentence that ended the preceding paragraph, looks absurdly repetitious. For a reader seeing the end-of-paragraph transition for the first time, the effect must be baffling. In drastic form, it goes like so:

Achilles’s speech shows his clear rejection of his community’s belief in the value of tīme . . . . [The paragraph then develops this idea.] But Achilles also rejects his community’s belief in kleos.

Achilles also rejects a belief in kleos.
Many of my students tell me that they’ve been taught to organize their paragraphs in this way. Thus the end-of-paragraph transition is both a bug and a feature. Where it comes from, I don’t know. I’ve never seen a text that teaches it.

I try to counter this mistaken paragraph strategy by pointing to the work of professional writers (whose paragraphs don’t work in this way) and by appealing to logic: the best place to present a new idea is in a . . . yes, in a new paragraph. But I don’t want students to go just by what I say — that tends to reinforce a suspicion that writing instruction is a matter of quirks and whims, one instructor wanting things one way and another wanting the opposite. And I’ve never found an authoritative source that addresses the end-of-paragraph transition clearly.

Until now. Bryan Garner’s The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts (1999) addresses the problem in tip no. 16:
Begin a paragraph with a topic sentence. Don’t end the preceding paragraph with what should be the next paragraph’s topic sentence.
Granted, this advice appears in a text for lawyers. But four of the five quoted passages on paragraph construction that accompany this advice come from non-lawerly sources (William Zinsser and others). Not all writing requires explicit statements of main ideas, and such statements need not appear (as Garner acknowledges) at the starts of paragraphs. No. 16 best applies to writing that argues and expounds — the kind of writing that college students do (or should be doing) all the time, with new ideas in new paragraphs.

Thanks, Bryan Garner.

Related reading
All OCA Garner-related posts (Pinboard)

[Here’s a discussion thread on the end-of-paragraph transition that makes for interesting reading. Oxford University Press will publish a third edition of The Winning Brief on May 1.]

comments: 2

The Arthurian said...

A similar phenomenon, at a different scale. It used to be thus:
I want to go out COMMA but it is raining.

Now it is this:
I want to go out but COMMA PAUSE it is raining.

The "but", like the next new thought, has been brought forward in ignorance.

I first noticed the reversed but+comma in the speech of Worf, son of Mogh (Star Trek Next Gen & DS9). I hoped it was a Klingon thing. Sadly, no.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, I’ve seen this one. Although now often appears with a comma after it, as if it were doing the work of however.