August 1, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: the proper length of a paragraph

Posted in anathema, paragraph length at 6:00 am by dlseltzer

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.

Indeed.

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.”

Amen!

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.

5 Comments »

  1. Frankie said,

    It is possible to disagree with reviewers. If the author decided that the offending two-sentence paragraph was the best way of communicating the idea and giving the reader a rest, then it would be perfectly acceptable to say that in the response to the reviewer. If the disagreement can be supported by a statement such as the quote from Fowler, even better!

    • dlseltzer said,

      It is okay to disagree with the reviewers, but I try to save that for the important things like points of fact. Their comments on style are not pertinent to the research so my feeling is to let it go.

  2. Michael said,

    Any length is OK? I have always found one-sentence paragraphs (more and more common in on-line journalism) to be pretentious and poor writing. Am I in a minority on this?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I think it depends on the kind of writing. For instance, I wouldn’t use this in our scholarly work, but for casual writing, it’s fine.

  3. Mike said,

    Hi there, at Fitch Ratings (where I am managing editor), our rule is that the maximum paragraph length is six lines for the front page (which is a summary of the research) and 10 lines maximum inside. We assume that many people stop at the first page so give more leeway in the guts of the report. Our page design has text running only across two-thirds of a page so the eye doesn’t get too over-worked.


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