How Many Sentences in a Paragraph?

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A DWT reader, exasperated by an online newspaper article formatted as eleven one-sentence “paragraphs,” asks for a definition of “paragraph” and wants to know how long a paragraph should be.

A paragraph is a unit of thought that develops an idea. A traditional paragraph contains a topic sentence that states the idea to be developed, plus additional sentences that develop the idea stated by the topic sentence.

A newspaper lead (or lede if you prefer) can do its job in one sentence, but with few exceptions, a paragraph will contain more than one sentence. The OWL site, aimed at college students, suggests a length of from three to five or more sentences.

We all know that online writing calls for techniques different from those of the print media. Web readers do not tolerate long expanses of text. They expect short paragraphs, subheads, and bulleted lists. Nevertheless, they require the organization and coherence that paragraphs provide.

The article that prompted this post is an instructive example of a badly-organized piece which would have benefited from placing related ideas in paragraphs. Take a look and see what you think.

Eleven-sentence/paragraph story
OWL on paragraphs

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30 thoughts on “How Many Sentences in a Paragraph?”

  1. I’ve always felt that a paragraph should be at least three sentences: one subject sentence plus two or three sentences that expand on the subject’s thought.

    “A subject sentence is the most important sentence in a paragraph. It provides the main idea behind the paragraph. There is no hard and fast rule for the order in which it will appear amongst the other sentences. Sometimes it can be the last sentence in the paragraph, used to drive the idea home conclusively.”

  2. Yes it’s a terribly written piece. But that’s not to say single sentence paragraphs don’t have their place. They’re just another tool in the writer’s arsenal. Perhaps their application is what requires the discussion.

    Great site.

  3. I took several years of journalism classes in college and they actually teach you NOT to write big paragraphs. To journalism teachers a one sentence paragraph is perfectly acceptable.

    That article you mention though is awful. You need to balance those one sentence paragraphs with a 2-3 sentence ones if you want it to be an article and not a list.

  4. Clare,
    Thanks for the link. I read your post (which has planted seeds of future posts of my own). I agree with your itemized list of outdated rules such as not ending a sentence with a preposition or never splitting an infinitive. I don’t agree that paragraphing belongs in that category.

  5. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the paragraph question, but I’m glad my post has inspired ideas for future posts. I look forward to reading them – and commenting on them, of course!

  6. Newspaper “English” has nothing to do with fine writing techniques and style.

    Newspaper “English” seeks to pack the most information into the least amount of space, which means eliminating as many uppercase letters as possible, cutting out commas and periods, and placing modifiers before the nouns and verbs, which also saves commas and spaces.

    The width of the newspaper column is equally as important, which might be only two inches wide, and rarely wider than three inches. Adding spaces means knocking text onto the next line, and that’s a waste of space and money.

    An example newspaper sentence: Beloved long-time Frederick HS football coach John Jones died today in a fiery car wreck along US Hwy 37 around 9 pm in a collision with a stalled cattle truck whose trailer extended into the inside traffic lane.

    But when a newspaper story goes on-line, there are other considerations, which is usually too much space to fill. That’s why every sentence is treated like a whole paragraph.

  7. I’m sorry—I wasn’t finished.

    In an “on-line” story, the goal is to have the reader scroll down down down until all the advertising banners have been made visible, so the text is extended by making every sentence stand alone.

    Advertising, in print or on-line, pays for the medium. And it’s a tough market these days for the advertisers, because their success depends on the contents of the medium. Lose 30-40% of your readers (due to content) and advertisers will fall off accordingly.

  8. We’ll throw in our two cents (don’t we always?).

    How many sentences does a paragraph need? At least one.

    Here are 2 bits quoted from our training manual, with some additional commentary:

    a. One paragraph = one central idea. Has someone ever said to you, “Hey, you’ve got a good point there”? Well, that’s what your paragraph does. It makes a point, one point, which is the central idea of the paragraph. You might think of it as the purpose for the paragraph. That one point of a paragraph may be supported by several other ideas, and the paragraph, itself, may be written to support a broader idea, but its purpose remains the same. It stands alone as the vehicle to express one complete idea to the reader.

    What is the idea expressed by the paragraph? The length of your paragraph depends on the complexity of that idea and its scope. When you have completed discussing that idea, stop. If you haven’t completed the discussion, keep going.

    b. Perhaps you had an English teacher tell you that a paragraph must have a thesis statement at the beginning. This is partially true. It must have a thesis statement. Your thesis statement is the point you are trying to communicate, but you have a couple of choices about its placement: beginning and end. You can start with the central idea and then build the internal and external supports, or you can provide the supports and lead up to your point.

    Long paragraphs become manageable to the reader and to the writer when the supporting ideas are relevant to the main idea and are paced appropriately with context sentences, discussion, and an impact statement (but that’s a different article, I believe).

    FYI: Henry David Thoreau used long paragraphs very effectively. See . As an exercise, identify the single main idea of each paragraph. Then find the supporting ideas by their context sentences, discussion, and impact statements. Have fun!

  9. I used to proofread for a court reporting service (that produced, e.g., deposition transcripts).

    The hard-and-fast rule there was to create a new paragraph once the testimony, as transcribed, ran over 5-7 lines. It was more about readability than expressing ideas in a paragraph block. Actually, I kind of enjoyed the challenge of interpreting testimony and defining paragraphs on my own.

    And, there’s something to be said for readability — similar to the type of Web writing that Maeve pointed out.

    (Oh, and I do believe it’s “a badly written piece,” without the hyphen. Yes? :-))

  10. A paragraph should more precisely contain a central thought correlated to the preceeding paragraph (title if it is the first para).

    If you wish to change the direction of your thought, or bring in a new dimension to your writing; you ought to know how to play with a paragraphs.

    A very long paragraph is bad and so is a very small one., but nothing is rigid when it comes to writing.

    So, experiment more and create newer styles.

  11. As a journalism student I would argue that there are instances where the one par sentence is required. In news articles this is the standard form. Furthermore pars should not be arranged by topic in this structure, but by the most important information down to the least important.

    Having said that, the telegraph article is indeed not the highest standard of writing – and as a part time Sub Editor I am left wondering who checks their page titles: “Coman jailed for murdering author.”

    Oh dear!

  12. Merriam-Webster defines a paragraph as:
    1 a : a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line b : a short composition or note that is complete in one paragraph
    2 : a character (as ¶) used to indicate the beginning of a paragraph and as a reference mark

    Most college professors prefer paragraphs that contain three or more sentences, but a one sentence paragraph is correct, and acceptable.
    I have not read the newspaper article that this post is about. But I can’t imagine a piece being comprised of eleven paragraphs, made up of one sentence each, holding any integrity.

  13. I teach college freshman English, and a main body paragraph ranges from 7-10 sentences. A paragraph should never go over one page double-spaced typed. One of the problems students have is not developing paragraphs adequately. A good thesuarus helps students write better paragraphs.

  14. I am freelance writer and a subscriber of DWT. In one of my assignments, the editor asked me to write environmentally friendly instead of environment friendly. Can any one please clarify what’s the difference and what is the correct usage. Thanks in advance.

  15. I think a paragraph should at least be 4-5 sentences long. If any shorter than you can’t really discuss what is in each paragraph.

  16. Thanks for all the comments- they help a lot. Most people were saying that you have to have at least eight sentences to make a paragraph!!! So this was a relief to find.

  17. I find it funny how many of you advocating multiple-sentence paragraphs wrote paragraphs of one sentence. You can’t just make up rules, folks. Well, I guess you can, but no one is obligated to follow them. I don’t care if you “think” a paragraph should be so many sentences, and I struggle with a teacher of college English who states with authority that “a main body paragraph ranges from 7-10 sentences.” It DOES? Says you. In my experience teaching writing, paragraphs in formal essays are usually better if they have at least three sentences. But it depends on a number of factors. In fiction, paragraphs are commonly a single sentence. Flip open any novel and I bet you find a single-sentence paragraph somewhere on the page. Check the dialogue.

    We can talk about what makes a good, thorough paragraph, but why must we resort to simplistic rules? It’s not helpful.

  18. A typical paragraph should have which of these (a) At least five paragraphs (b)At least two simple sentences (c)At most four complex sentences and(d) At least one topic sentences

  19. Brian W, I was just thinking exactly that! I especially like Austin Chadd’s 2-sentence paragraph, telling us that every paragraph should be at least 4-5 sentences long. And TFP’s, right at the top, that uses a 1-sentence paragraph to propose that every paragraph needs 2-3 sentences.

    A paragraph should have as many words and sentences as it takes to express its concept or idea. No more, no less.

  20. One of my writing mentors suggested between eight to ten sentences to a paragraph. While I have tried my best to follow this, I notice that in business writing it is not always the case. On-line searches I did a few minutes ago had one person saying that a paragraph should have at least three sentences.

  21. I personally prefer paragraphs of 5 sentences or more in research papers and professional writing. I picked this guidance up from a middle or high school teacher, and it stuck. For me, this guidance means that I am fully thinking through and developing my concepts. Further, I like for the density of my paragraphs to appear consistent.

    However, I think that 3 -5 sentences may work better for the digital medium, where the organisation of content should favour improved “readability” for less-formal audiences… and for folks reading on mobile devices.

    I have noticed that my writing style changes depending on the device in hand. For instance, if I am typing an e-mail to a colleague on my computer, I tend towards a more formal style. If I am typing on my mobile, I tend towards a more informal (text-message) style.

    Looking through the commends above, we all seem to be organising more for “readability”.

    The rules are contextual.

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