one sentence is a paragraph?

Kevin Ji

Member
Mandarin
Last week, I sent one of my articles to a former IELTS examiner on iTalki, and I wrote my first introduction paragraph like:

"Some people believe that leaving their home countries will offer them better work and living opportunities, while others contend that it is better to stay in home countries."

The former examiner says that this paragraph is too short to be a paragraph because it is only one sentence.

Is it true? Must a paragraph have at least two sentences?
 
  • Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    James Joyce wrote a 36 page long sentence in Ulysses (though some contend it is a stream of consciousness without punctuation).

    Faulkner had a 1,200 + word long actual sentence in Absalom, Absalom!

    So one sentence can make a paragraph (or even a chapter of a book).

    You can find more examples here:

    longest sentence in literature - Google Search
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Conversely, there is the question, how short may a paragraph be? Would it be impossible to write a valid paragragraph consisting of one two-letter word, for instance? Is that forbidden by some unwritten rule of grammar?

    No.

    One of the great virtues of good style is variety, and most good modern writers will vary the length of their sentences and their paragraphs to suit the rhythm of their thoughts (and also to keep their readers interested). Joyce and Faulkner were intending to create some specific impact; you were intending something quite different. Good for you! The added fact that yours was an introductory paragraph makes its use of a single sentence all the more understandable. The best work on this topic that I know is Style by F.L. Lucas (Cassell & Co. London 1955), and in particular his chapter IV Courtesy to Readers, subtitled Brevity and variety.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    You could write a rather long paragraph presenting one cohesive idea. You could then decide that the large cohesive paragraph consisted of several distinct sub-ideas and for the sake of readability, you could break that paragraph into smaller paragraphs.

    Paragraphs are created to represent separate, identifiable ideas.

    These ideas can be represented by a single sentence. Or it can be represented by several related sentences.

    Note: The above could have been presented as a single paragraph. I made “Paragraphs are created […]” as a separate paragraph for emphasis.

    If your paragraphing creates readability issues, then it is “wrong”. I think that where to create a new paragraph is subjective.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think the long and the short of it (so to speak) is that having a one-sentence or even an only-a-few-words paragraph can be a very effective ploy in fiction, and perhaps especially dialogue, but it’s unlikely to be a good idea in most kinds of formal writing.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    The issue is style, not some grammar rule. You could work around the grammar rule with this trivial change:

    Some people believe that leaving their home countries will offer them better work and living opportunities, while others contend that it is better to stay in home countries.

    Some people believe that leaving their home countries will offer them better work and living opportunities. Others contend that it is better to stay in home countries.
    The difference is strictly style. Some Americans would prefer the second one, because they prefer shorter sentences.

    But that doesn't mean longer sentences are inferior. It's all about style.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I agree with dojibear. I do believe that the “American style” that favors shorter, typically declarative sentences is a product of the newspaper style of writing.

    Newspapers, in particular The New York Times, did readability research and they concluded that shorter sentences are more readable and sentences over 14 words long were significantly less readable.

    Other publications followed the New York Times’ lead.

    I am less familiar with paragraph length as a factor in readability, but certainly newspapers favor shorter paragraphs.

    Early editing using “cut and paste”, meant that quite literally. Though by the time I was in journalism school we used scissors and scotch tape—paste had left the building.

    It was far easier to cut out paragraphs and paste in new ones than it was to cut out sentences and paste in new ones.

    Paragraphs became the writing and editing module.

    I think my writing favors shorter sentences than most. And I think I favor simple declarative sentences more than most. (But I have not made a systematic analysis.)

    I believe paragraphing that breaks up large blocks of type makes it more readable. More so in posts like this than in other venues.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    they concluded that shorter sentences are more readable and sentences over 14 words long were significantly less readable.
    I heard a linguist say that (in spoken American) the average utterance is 8-9 words. I wonder if those numbers are related.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    From what I recall, sentences above 14 words created readability issues. I took these classes over 50 years ago, so some of the details escape me now, but I do recall that the readability scores were not linear in relation to the word count. The readability numbers fell off a cliff at 14+ words.

    There may be new research; I have not kept up.

    There were other factors involved, including type size, line length and interline leading (spacing).

    And, of course, good grammar and punctuation. :D
     
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