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is “a connected series of sentences constituting the development of a single topic.” A paragraph, says a third, is “ a whole composition in miniature." And so on. In these straits, trying to make a definition for myself, I have been able to frame no better one than this, whose comparative form makes it at least suggestive: A paragraph is to a sentence what a sentence is to a word.
While this, of course, is nothing but another way of saying what I have said already, — that the principles which apply to the composition of paragraphs are the same that apply to the composition of sentences, – it states the fact in a more compact form; and it fixes more firmly in one's mind the fact which most writers never keep in mind at all, – that paragraphs ought to be as definitely organized as sentences themselves.
This fact, I have just said, few writers keep in mind. Recalling for an instant what everybody knows, - that paragraphs, like punctuation, exist only in written discourse, and are not recognizable in spoken, - we can see that this statement amounts to saying that in the composition of paragraphs there is no such thing as good use. Some good writers are pretty careful about paragraphs; but quite as many seem to regard paragraphs as purely ornamental devices, serving in literature some such purpose as that filled by illuminated initials. A page or two of unbroken text is ugly; let us break it somewhere. Without exaggeration a very large number of the paragraphs I have exam
ined appear to be made on no more vital principle than this. The first line of every paragraph, to be sure, is sharply indented ; and in paragraphs, as in sentences, monotony of construction is palpably artificial, and palpable artificiality is never idiomatically free. Now, what is not apparently idiomatic may be said to offend against good use. Very generally, then, I may say that good use appears not to sanction rigid monotony of paragraph. Further than that, nothing.
To a serious student of the art of composition this state of things is very refreshing. It means that we have reached a point where we are emancipated from the troublesome control of external fashion, where we are free to guide ourselves by intelligence. We are past the gambit; the game is open. The only question is how we may most effectively exercise our good
Our good sense, I say. For if my definition of a paragraph be true, if a paragraph really be to a sentence what a sentence is to a word, then pretty much every principle which, constantly hampered by good use, we tried to apply to sentences, we can now apply untrammelled ; and almost the first thing we found true of sentences was that, happily for us, English grammar is little else than a clumsy codification of British good sense.
A sentence which on analysis proves sensible is generally good English. By the same token, a paragraph sensibly composed is beyond cavil a good paragraph.
The next thing for us to inquire is whether there
are any distinct kinds of paragraphs, by means of which distinctly different effects may be produced. The only kinds of paragraphs which seem practically important are the long and the short. What a long paragraph is, or a short, it is not very easy to say ; but perhaps it is easier than to answer a similar question about sentences. In an ordinary page of printin a page of this book, for example, – there are between two and three hundred words. Taking this, as a standard of measurement, I may roughly say that a paragraph of less than one hundred words -- of a third of a page or less - is distinctly short; and that a paragraph of more than three hundred words more than a page — is distinctly long. And there is no doubt that long paragraphs produce an effect distinctly different from that produced by short. The effect secured by long paragraphs I may roughly call
Ι solid or heavy or serious; the effect secured by short paragraphs I may roughly call light. Each effect is perfectly legitimate; each has its function; in a given piece of writing one kind or the other may with perfect propriety predominate or prevail.
The general fact that long paragraphs are distinctly heavy in effect is tacitly recognized in a familiar commonplace. With all their manifold unwisdom, children and young people have good eyes : literally and metaphorically they have a way, mortifying to conscientious old folks, of seeing things pretty much as they are. Now, when we ask children, or people whose minds still retain the guileles3 veracity of infancy, to read a book, their first question is apt to be whether there is much conversation in it. If so, they are willing to read without coaxing; if not, we often have to coax. In modern books speeches are apt to be short; in modern books each speech makes a distinct paragraph. Technically speaking, then, this marked preference for books with conversation in them amounts to an instinctive preference for short paragraphs; nor is this preference exclusively infantine. It is short speeches that give such swift vitality to some of the most perennially delightful scenes of Molière ; it is the prevalence of conversation and short paragraphs that makes so perennially amusing the novels of the elder Dumas. Tired people of my acquaintance generally prefer Dumas to Walter Scott; when I am tired, I greatly prefer him myself, and so far as I can analyze the preference, it is largely a matter of length of paragraph.
In this fact we have the simplest guide in our consideration of the principles of composition as they apply to paragraphs. We shall discuss them, of course, in their regular order, — first the principle of Unity, then the principle of Mass, and last the principle of Coherence. The general principle of Unity, which concerns the substance of a composition, you will remember to be this : Every composition should group itself about one central idea. In applying this principle to paragraphs, the textbooks grow pedantically lifeless. “Unity in a paragraphı,” says one,
“implies a sustained purpose, and forbids digression and irrelevant matter." “ Unity in a paragraph," says another, “ requires that every statement in the paragraph be subservient to one principal affirmation.” “ Unity in a paragraph,” says a third, “is subserved by choosing for each paragraph a determinate subject, to which all parts of the structure are related as constituting elements in its development.” For my part, I find it far more easy to understand the matter when I simply say that the type of a paragraph that possesses unity is a single speech in a dialogue.
A few examples within anybody's experience will define this matter very simply. In the novels of the last century it was generally the fashion to write dialogue in great masses, - running into a single paragraph a number of distinct speeches. You can find such paragraphs anywhere in Fielding. In any modern novel, on the other hand, each speech is kept rigidly distinct; and yet there is one case where the most severe modern usage would place in a single paragraph a number of independent speeches: this is when you wish to produce the effect of confused cries. In the “ Arabian Nights,” you will remember, is a tale of how a prince of Persia sets out to climb an enchanted mountain in search of a speaking bird. If he turn around, he is sure to meet a fate akin to that of Lot's wife, and to become a black stone. The moment he begins to climb he is accosted by all manner of taunting voices apparently just behind him, which try to make him turn his