August 1, 2013
Weekly Language Usage Tips: the proper length of a paragraph
Tip: The proper length of a paragraph
A reader writes:
I was working on a response to reviews for a manuscript I submitted.
One of the reviewers noted, “Page 9. Results section. Two sentences do not make a paragraph.”
I found this is a bit surprising. I thought a paragraph was a grouping of sentences that together present a single idea or thought. Is there a fixed rule on how many sentences need to be in a paragraph?
I looked into this and found that many authorities posit that a paragraph should consist of somewhere between three and eight sentences.
Balderdash! Or maybe I should say, poppycock!
Those authorities and the manuscripts reviewer are completely wrong. I’m not holding back here. They are idiots! The thought that at least three sentences are needed to form a paragraph could result in long-winded, heavy, pedantic, and boring exposition. To write more than you need just to follow some ‘rule’ is such an anathema to me, I am almost at a loss for words. Almost.
[NOTE: ‘Anathema’ is a strange word. It can be used with or without an article (in this case, ‘an’), while most nouns demand the article. In fact, it is more common to use it without the article, but I am more comfortable with the article, and so, I use it.]
Anyway, a paragraph can be of any length. What defines and unifies it is that it expresses one idea. In our attempt to write with clarity and grace, we should only write what is necessary to communicate what we are trying to say. No more, no less. A paragraph can consist of two sentences or even one or even one word.
Let’s see what Fowler had to say on the subject:
“The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: ‘Have you got that? If so, I’ll go on to the next point.’ There can no general rule about the most suitable length for a paragraph; a succession of short ones is as irritating as very long ones are wearisome. The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length; it must be homogenous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.”
Now, that I have gotten that off my chest and convinced you that a paragraph can be of any length, I have this to say. Our job, here, is to get published. A publications in a peer-reviewed journal is the coin of the realm in academia. So if the reviewer decries a two sentence paragraph, I would go ahead and add the offending sentences to the previous paragraph (in the reader’s case, it was made part of the ‘methods’ section which was appropriate) to make the reviewer happy and to get the manuscript published! Just know, in your heart, that the reviewer is a numbskull.