Basic Paragraph Structure
Coherence and Unity
In this lesson:
Coherence refers to a certain characteristic or aspect of writing. Literally, the word means "to stick together." Coherence in writing means that all the ideas in a paragraph flow smoothly from one sentence to the next sentence. With coherence, the reader has an easy time understanding the ideas that you wish to express.
Consider the paragraph that we studied in Lesson #1:
Look at the words in bold font. Do you see how they help guide the reader? For example, consider the words, First, Second, and The third amazing feature. We can call these words major connectors. Major connectors help organize the main parts of your paragraph. This paragraph has three main parts: (1) a part about the Wheaton River, (2) a part about Wheaton Hill, and (3) a part about the Big Old Tree. Another way of saying this is that this paragraph has three main points which are indicated by the major connectors. Using such major connectors is an important way of providing coherence in a paragraph.
What about the other words in bold, such as those appearing in the phrases "these trees" and "this hill"? We can call these minor connectors. Minor connectors provide coherence to a paragraph by connecting sentences within each of the main parts of your paragraph. That is, when you write about your main points, you can use minor connectors to link your details to each main point.
Now, look at this paragraph. Can you identify the main points?
Was this paragraph a little confusing to read? Now consider the same paragraph with a few changes:
Do you see which of the connectors above are major and which are minor? The major ones are For example in the second sentence, which introduces the first supporting point (the Mercury program); As another example, which begins the second main point (the Gemini program); and the word Finally, which introduces the third and last main point (the Apollo moon program). (In the paragraph above, all of the major connectors are underlined.)
As for the minor connectors, we can divide them into three groups. The first group of minor connectors provides coherence for the first main point (the Mercury program). There is only one minor connector in this first group, In addition, although it is possible to have more than one, depending on how many details you have to support your first main point.
The second group of minor connectors consists of That is, also, and also the phrase For example in the sentence, "For example, some astronauts..." Notice that this last minor connector is the same as the major connector at the beginning of the paragraph. However, the function of each is different, depending on the meaning of the sentences.
The third group of minor connectors in this particular paragraph also has one member, which is Other goals included....
Here is a table of a few common connectors (also called transitions):
Unity is a very important characteristic of good paragraph writing. Paragraph unity means that one paragraph is about ONLY ONE main topic. That is, all the sentences -- the topic, supporting sentences, the detail sentences, and (sometimes) the concluding sentence -- are all telling the reader about ONE main topic. If your paragraph contains a sentence or some sentences that are NOT related to the main topic, then we say that the paragraph "lacks unity," or that the sentence is "off-topic."
Look at the following paragraph, which is similar to the paragraph that we have studied above. Does it have perfect unity? Try to find the sentence that is off-topic:
This paragraph is generally good, but the sentence, Several weeks later, Leonov's spacewalk was followed by that of U.S. astronaut Ed White, does not have anything to do with the major goals of the various Russian space projects. That is, it is an "off-topic" sentence, so we can say that the paragraph somewhat lacks unity. In order to improve the paragraph, we should omit this sentence, even though it is historically accurate.
Basic Essay Structure
In this lesson:
On the Written portion of the TOEFL, you will be asked to write an essay that is more than one paragraph long. The reason for this is that in U.S. academic culture, essays need to be several paragraphs long in order for students to express their ideas clearly and for instructors to determine whether or not students understand the material.
Knowing how to organize your ideas in such long essays is very important for academic success.
Generally, academic essays have a similar format. They are at least five paragraphs long, although often they are much longer. Also, the basic structure of each of these paragraphs is the same as that which we have already studied. In addition, the paragraphs in the U.S. academic essay can be divided into three basic kinds: (1) the introductory paragraph, (2) the body paragraphs, and (3) the concluding paragraph.
The first paragraph of the academic essay is the one that is usually the most different from the basic paragraph that we have studied. In Lessons #1 and #2, we saw that a basic paragraph had a topic sentence as its first sentence, followed by supporting sentences with supporting details, and these (sometimes) followed by a concluding sentence.
In the multi-paragraph academic essay, however, the structure is a little different. Like the basic paragraph, the introductory paragraph opens with a very general statement about the topic, and is often followed by some supporting examples, but the paragraph then finishes with a narrow statement about the topic. This narrow statement is called the main thesis. Here is a short example of an introductory paragraph:
Notice how the first sentence, Throughout human history, nature has often presented dangers to explorers,is a very general statment about the topic, which is dangers in exploration. The next two sentences give some supporting examples of this intital sentence. However, the third sentence of the paragraph gives an example that contrasts in some way with the previous two sentences. Then, the final sentence does something new: It introduces a specific example of the general topic. This specific topic is the main thesis of the entire essay; that is, the rest of the essay will focus on this specific topic, which in this case is several unique challenges for explorers.
This main thesis functions like the topic sentence of the basic paragraph, which we have studied in Lessons #1 and #2. It is the most important sentence of the essay.
Notice how the main thesis is worded. It includes the phrase, several unique challlenges.This raises a question in the reader's mind, namely: "What are these challenges?" The reader will find out what some of the challenges are in the body of the essay, which we will study next.
The body portion of the essay is the largest portion. Typically, it has three paragraphs, but it might have two paragraphs and of course it can have many more than three. Each of these paragraphs usually has a topic sentence and several supporting sentences, just like the basic paragraph we have studied. Here is an example of three body paragraphs (which together continue the essay that we have started studying above):
(Note that usually we do not put extra spaces between individual paragraphs, as has been done above. The spaces between the paragraphs above are only for study purposes.)
Recall that the main thesis statement of this essay said, Similarly, the ocean of outer space has many dangers, but it also has several unique challenges for explorers. You can see how the body of the essay is organized according to the challenges that are mentioned in the main thesis. The first body paragraph discusses the dangers of space vacuum, the second body paragraph gives information about meteors, and the third paragraph mentions the fact that water is very difficult to find on other planets.
The concluding paragraph does not always appear in an academic essay. In particular, on the Written portion of the TOEFL, which lasts 30 minutes, there may not be enough time for you to include a formal concluding paragraph. However, here is an example of a concluding paragraph for you. Notice how it summarizes the main points of the preceding body paragraphs:
Here is another example of a concluding paragraph:
Comparison and Contrast Paragraphs
In this lesson:
Some TOEFL writing topics will ask you to consider the relationship between two things, for example, your hometown (that is, the town where you were born or grew up) and your university town. Such topics may allow you to organize your essay either around the similarities between these two subtopics (for example, between your hometown and your university town) or around the differences between them. If you write about the similarities, the essay will be a comparison essay. On the other hand, if you want to write about the differences, your essay will be a contrast essay.
This lesson will show you some ways in which you can structure sentences to write a comparison or contrast paragraph. We will first look at comparison paragraphs and then briefly look at contrast paragraphs.
Consider the following paragraph:
(Note: The four dots [ . . . . ] at the end of this paragraph mean that the paragraph contains more sentences that are not shown here.)
The passage above is from a comparison paragraph. that is, a paragraph which discusses the similarities between two subtopics. Notice how the ideas in this paragraph are organized. As usual, the topic sentence is at the beginning of the paragraph. After that, the paragraph continues by discussing one point of similarity between the towns of Gridlock and Subnormal, namely, their small population. Specific details are given to support the statment that "both are small rural communities." Following this, the paragraph briefly discusses a second point of similarity between the two towns, that is, their geographic surroundings. Here, the paragraph also gives supporting details to illustrate their similarity, namely, that they are "both located in rural areas."
As you can see, therefore, this comparison paragraph is structured (organized) according to the points of similarity between the two towns. This particular paragraph discusses only two points of similarity, but of course we can imagine a paragraph that gives three, four, or even more points of similarity. This paragraph, for example, might continue in this way:
(Note: The three dots [ . . . ] at the beginning of the above paragraph indicate that the paragraph contains previous sentences that are not shown here.)
We can place the points of similarity and their supporting details in a table in order to see more clearly how this short paragraph is organized:
Comparison Paragraph -- Organized by Similar Points
Another way of organizing a comparison is not according to supporting details that are similar, but according to subtopic. That is, we can organize the paragraph by first discussing all the relevant points associated to one subtopic, then discussing those of the second subtopic. Look at the following example, based on the above paragraph:
As you can see, after the topic sentence, this paragraph first discusses the relevant details about Gridlock and then presents the details about Subnormal. As with the paragraph above, we can illustrate this paragraph's structure in the following way:
Comparison Paragraph -- Organized by Subtopic
In the above paragraphs you will see various conjunctions that contribute to paragraph coherence. We can look at the above paragraphs again to see how the conjunctions are used:
This paragraph, of course, is organized according to similarities. Notice how the ORDER of the similarities is the same throughout the paragraph. That is, at each similar point, the paragraph first discusses Gridlock and then it discusses Subnormal. Keeping the same order throughout the paragraph prevents the reader from getting confused. Also notice how the conjunctions (for example, similarly, and ...X are similar in that...) are placed near each similar point. Now examine the following paragraph, which is organized by subtopic:
These are not the only ways to give coherence to a comparison paragraph. There are other conjunctions, too. Here is a list of comparison conjunctions you can use:
As mentioned above, a contrast paragraph discusses the differences between (at least) two things. You can organize contrast paragraphs in much the same way that you can organize comparison paragraphs. That is, you can organize them either according to points of similarity or according to subtopic. Here is an example of such a paragraph organized by subtopic. Notice the contrastive expressions in bold letters:
Here are some contrast conjunctions that you can use:
Cause and Effect Paragraphs
Sometimes, assigned topics on the written portion of the TOEFL ask you to explain the reasons or causes of something. Other topics will ask you to discuss the results or effects of some cause. Here is an example of a writing topic asking for causes of a particular phenomenon (Note: this is not an actual TOEFL topic, but it is similar to one that may appear on a specific adminstration of the TOEFL):
Cause/effect paragraphs generally follow basic paragraph format. That is, they begin with a topic sentence and this sentence is followed by specific supporting details. For example, if the topic sentence introduces an effect, the supporting sentences all describe causes. Here is an example:
Notice how each supporting sentence is a cause that explains the effect mentioned in the topic sentence. In the chart below are the main ideas of the above paragraph, to help you understand the relationships better:
Notice also how the topic sentence is followed by the "focusing" or "prediction" sentence, There are several reasons for this. Such sentences help the reader anticipate the organization of the paragraph or essay.
Here are some common conjunctions that can be used to express cause and effect:
There are two things you must be careful of when using these conjunctions. First, you must order the cause and the effect corerctly. For example, in the sentence
Sally closed the window because the weather outside was cold.
the CAUSE is the fact that the room was cold, and the EFFECT is Sally's closing the window. The conjunction because is placed in the correct position here, which is right before the cause. Similarly, in the sentence
Because the weather outside was cold, Sally closed the window.
the conjunction because is correctly placed before the part of the sentence that expresses the cause, even though the subordinate clause because the room was cold is now at the beginning of the sentence. (Note that the first letter of the conjunction is now capitalized.) However, in this sentence:
??The weather outside was cold because Sally closed the window.
even though it is grammatical, it does not make sense because a person's opening or closing a window does not influence the weather.
Second, you should be careful when using commas. Conjunctions such as therefore, consequently, as a result, and for this reason are usually followed by a comma, as in these examples:
The adverbial clause conjunctions since and because are exceptions. These are attached directly at the beginning of CAUSE-sentence without a comma, as in the example above, Because the weather outside was cold, Sally closed the window. The comma here is placed at the end of the subordinate clause.
The coordinating conjunction so is also different from the ones above. This conjunction has a comma before it, as in this sentence:
The weather was warm, so Jim turned on the air conditioner.
However, in formal academic writing, so may not be used at the beginning of a sentence (although you will often see it in informal writing):
The weather was warm. So Jim turned on the air conditioner.
(too informal -- avoid this usage)