Grammar

7 ways to produce powerful paragraphs

Pilcrow

 

This is a pilcrow. It's the symbol used to mark paragraph breaks in old books and other documents. According to this article, the word comes from the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which led to the Old French paragraph. Somehow, the word transformed into the Middle English pylcrafte and eventually became the “pilcrow.”

You can find pilcrows on Word and other wordprocessing programs, if you know where to look - or if you press the wrong button.  But these days, the pilcrow itself tends to be rather shy.

Paragraphs, on the other hand, need to be easy to see. They show your reader that you've organised your thoughts - or at least, they give the visual promise of organised thinking. Faced with a page lacking any paragraph breaks, we're likely to give up reading before we even start. Make sure your paragraphs have plenty of white space around them.

Of course, you have to fulfil the visual promise. You should organise your thoughts into paragraphs. And the basic way to do that is to allocate one thought to each paragraph.

All the seven techniques we'll look at in this post develop that idea.

(The example paragraphs all come from reports written by the Scrutiny Team of the Greater London Authority. All of them are available publicly and they are all at least ten years old.)

 

1. Begin your paragraph with a topic sentence.

Topic sentences are the most powerful editing technique I know. They achieve so much with so little. Pay attention to your topic sentences and your writing will improve fast.

A topic sentence expresses the point you want to make in the paragraph. Everything in the paragraph must support or expand what you say in your topic sentence. Think of it as a signpost, telling your reader what you want to say at this point.

 

London controls little of its own money for spending on public services. Of the £57 billion that came into London’s public services in 2004-5, just £2.5 billion (4.4% of the total) was raised locally.  Between them, the boroughs and the Mayor spend some £20 billion annually, but around two-thirds of the total spent in London on public services is spent outside the scope and influence of local control.  A virtual ‘secret state’ provides the bulk of London’s public services.

 

2. Check that topic sentences make sense in order, and that they summarize the sequence.

Topic sentences outline the most important points in your text; when read in sequence, they should summarise the whole piece. As well as helping to keep your reader on track, topic sentences help you improve your text by forcing you to clarify what you want to say - and in what order.

 

All public spaces require some form of management.  If a space is to fulfil its role and remain accessible and inclusive, a management body must coordinate a number of tasks.  It must find sources of financial investment for the space, maintain the space physically, regulate its use and mediate conflicts of interest.  In the past, land owned or controlled by local councils, like parks or streets, was understood to be public, unlike private sites which were usually considered private property and not accessible to the general public (unless there was an actual public right of way).

Increasingly there is a blurring of once clear-cut lines between public and private areas of the city. Some commentators believe that the growth of ‘private-public’ space produces over-controlled, sterile places which tend to look the same and fail to connect with the local environment and community. They also raise questions about democracy and accountability and the displacement of social problems into neighbouring districts.

The main focus of the investigation is therefore on management and recognising the needs of different stakeholders. On land that is privately owned all powers lie, in principle, in private hands. Through the planning system the local authority can create and maintain a level of influence on any ’public’ space proposed on that land when dealt with at the outset, or ensure that it is managed in an acceptable way.

 

3. Identify the function of the paragraph.

Nearly all paragraphs in business writing do one of two things. They either persuade or explain. (Occasionally you may want to describe something - to paint a picture in words - or narrate a story.)

We can organise arguments in two main ways.

A deductive argument takes two (usually two) statements called premises and derives a conclusion from them. When you use a deductive pattern, the concluding sentence will restate your topic sentence, perhaps with some added detail.

 

[Topic sentence] The overriding challenge in inner London will be to improve recycling rates in flats and on estates. [Why?] [Premise 1] Flats account for around half of London’s housing stock. Most of these can be found in inner London boroughs. [Premise 2] Recycling and composting in flats and estates is low, typically around 10 per cent. [Conclusion] Increasing recycling in these properties is imperative if London’s average recycling rate is to improve.

 

An inductive argument states its conclusion up front and offers a range of different reasons to support it.In this example, the writer has signalled the different supporting reasons for the argument with bullet points.

 

There is a strong case for the Mayor to intervene in his role as the head of a strategic, city-wide authority, to reduce childhood obesity. [Why?]

  • Childhood obesity is a significant problem for London, occurring in every borough, with little evidence that the problem is being alleviated. High costs are incurred as a result of this, with a detrimental impact on the city’s economic development.
  • The Mayor has control of some important policy levers – and associated funding – that could be used to address obesity. These include his powers in relation to Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service and potentially the Royal Parks, his planning powers and strategic responsibility for health inequality.  It is anticipated the Mayor will chair the proposed London Health Improvement Board, which will oversee public health policy.
  • Some key obesity-reduction interventions – or elements of them – may be more effectively delivered at a city-wide rather than borough level. For instance, social marketing aimed at improving health may have more impact if it is applied throughout London.
  • The Mayor and GLA are well placed to influence negotiations with major private companies and other organizations that operate across London.
  • The Greater London Authority is well placed to evaluate any obesity-reduction interventions introduced in different parts of the city, and share best practice among partner organisations including boroughs and NHS commissioners.

We can use six patterns of explanation. If you can identify which pattern you want to use, you'll be able to organize your material more efficiently and effectively.

 

Examples

Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 

Categories

Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Cause and effect

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 

Process

The proposed timetable is as follows:

  • Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April
  • Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April
  • Scoping brief to Members on 12 April
  • Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April
  • Written evidence received by 26 May
  • Evidence analysed and briefing prepared for Members by 5 July
  • Evidentiary Hearing 13 July
  • Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting

Definition

Obesity is defined, for adults, as having a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 30kg/m2, and overweight is having a BMI over 25.  For children, BMI is used differently.  A child is considered to be obese if they are in the 95th centile (the highest 5%) of the BMI scale, and overweight if they are in the 85th centile (the highest 15%).

Comparison and contrast

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   Availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. Some local people may not be able to access playing fields for a variety of reasons.

 

4.    Put at the start of the topic sentence an element from the previous paragraph; place at the end of the topic sentence the new element or information that you will become the theme of the paragraph.

 

Paragraph1

5. Within the paragraph, identify the subjects and verbs of all sentences (and other clauses).

The most effective subjects act like characters in a story. (Imagine trying to draw a cartoon character of the noun you have chosen as the subject of a sentence.) The best main verbs express what those characters are doing in the story of the sentence.

In this example, the subjects are printed in bold and the verbs in italics. Some subjects work better than others as characters. The sentences in green are the least effective.

 

For the purpose of this investigation, the Committee has defined people with reduced mobility as people of all ages who use wheelchairs, have other disabilities or walking-related difficulties or travel with young children using buggies and prams.  It can be difficult to determine the exact number of people with reduced mobility.  The Committee has made the best estimate possible, in conjunction with the GLA Intelligence Unit, on information available.  The GLA Intelligence Unit has applied TfL findings on the percentages of people with a travel-related disability from 5 years old upwards to current and future population estimates to produce the data in this report. This also reflects the numbers of 0-1 year olds to provide for the number of Londoners using buggies and prams.  Further details about the data can be found at Appendix 1 of this report.

 

6.    Remove all references to the fact that you are writing.

I call this kind of writing ‘scaffolding’. I've marked it here in green.

 

This chapter considers the key challenges the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome in the near future.  The two overarching challenges we have identified are the increases in demand the LAS has experienced over recent years, which are expected to continue, and the need to become more efficient.

Remove the scaffolding and the text suddenly comes alive. You are now saying what you want to say to the reader.

In our view, the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome two major challenges in the near future.  On the one hand, the service, like the rest of the NHS, needs to deliver substantial increases in efficiency in the coming years.  On the other hand, demand for the service has increased in recent years, and will undoubtedly continue to increase.

 

Here's another example. The writer took two steps to remove the scaffolding completely.

It is important to note here the inclusion of both physical activity and diet in the explanation of obesity. 

Both physical activity and diet need to be considered to explain obesity.

Both physical activity and diet contribute to obesity.

 

Exception: at the end of an introduction, give a guided tour of the chapters to follow.

The next chapter of this report provides an overview of the performance of the LAS, based on targets the service is required to meet.  Chapter 3 then discusses the strategic challenges facing the service as it tries to maintain and improve its performance: managing increasing demand and generating efficiencies.  The following chapters then explore the relationships between the LAS and other parts of the health and emergency services.  Chapter 4 focuses on how the LAS works with partners within the NHS, and Chapter 5 does the same for the organisations in the GLA Group; both chapters seek to identify what the Mayor can do to support the LAS in strengthening these relationships, in order to meet strategic challenges the service faces.

 

7. Exploit opportunities to construct patterns within paragraphs.

One way to do so is to construct sequences of sentences in parallel.

 

This belief in “working long” strongly affects the economy and individual businesses.  Why do we have a “jobless recovery”?  Because, in part, employers are using record levels of overtime instead of hiring new workers.  Why are many companies – both failing and profitable – slashing their work forces by thousands?  Because, in part, they believe the road to profit is to be lean and mean, to push their employees harder and longer.

 

People often ask me how long a paragraph should be. There's no simple answer. Obviously, you could make your paragraphs too short or too long, but the circumstances will always be different.

In principle, I'd say that most paragraphs should include at least three sentences. The topic sentence summarizes, and it will do so more effectively if it is summarizing two other points (it doesn't make a great deal of sense for one idea to summarize one other idea.). And a working maximum might be six or seven sentences.

Look also at the length of your sentences. As a very rough guide, sentence length should increase as the paragraph goes on. So your topic sentence will probably be the shortest and the final sentence might be your longest. You could vary this pattern by closing with a short, punchy sentence.

If you find that a paragraph is too long, try splitting it up. Check that the paragraphs still make sense in order. Try to vary the length of paragraphs.

If a paragraph is too short, it may be because the initial idea has not been developed sufficiently. If you think that you need to develop an idea further, identify the pattern of explanation you might be using and develop it.

  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences

I run The Grammar Roadshow, a workshop exploring issues of grammar, punctuation and style. You can find an outline here.


Modular enchantment

Trivium: Trivium

the classical liberal arts of grammar,logic & rhetoric 

Edited by John Martineau

Wooden Books, 2016

£14.99

ISBN 978 1 907155 18 5 

John Martineau has developed Wooden Books, based in Glastonbury, as a collection of beautifully crafted pocket-sized oracles, which he describes as “a mathemagical ancient wisdom series”. Each book promises knowledge hidden, forgotten or downright arcane, in modular form (no chapter runs to more than two pages). Production values are high: Trivium, like all the other titles in Martineau’s catalogue, cries out to be picked up.

Enlightenment and entertainment are cunningly intertwined.

The trivium is the trio of liberal arts that, in medieval universities, comprise the humanities: grammar, logic and rhetoric. (Wooden Books has also produced a companion volume, Quadrivium, covering the four ‘scientific’ arts: maths, geometry, music and astronomy.) The subjects are ‘liberal’ because they liberate the student into citizenship: without them, we cannot participate fully in civil society. (Tell that to the vice-chancellors of our universities...)

Trivium will give you a pleasurable smattering of each art, with some amusing add-ons to keep you turning the pages.

This is actually a compendium of six short books by different authors – with three appendices by yet more; as a result, each section treats its subject slightly differently.

Turn to Andrew Aberdein's and Adina Arvatu's section on rhetoric – and there’s no need to read Trivium end-to-end – and you’ll find a decent enough introduction to its classical roots (but nothing about later rhetorical theory). There are gaps, even in such a brief overview: although it describes the five canons, it barely mentions topics of invention and deals not at all with the skills of delivery. You’ll find a few intriguing pages in the appendices on proverbs and the art of memory, but no fewer than 37 of the section’s 52 pages are given over, perhaps inevitably, to figures of speech.

Rachel Holley does a much better job with grammar. It would be hard to imagine a more cogent account.If you're looking for a straightforward guide to the basics, you won't go far wrong.  (Though at one point, at least, Ms Holley does go wrong - very slightly.)

At the other end of the scale, Earl Fontainelle promises much with logic and actually over-delivers: some aspects of the subject are introduced without being explained.

These core sections are framed with material reflecting the development of the humanities in the Renaissance. Octavia Wynne takes us on a wonderful journey through poetics: you need never worry again about distinguishing an anapest from a villanelle. As with every section, the quotations are wide-ranging and rich. The final book in the collection, by Gregory Beabout and Mike Hannis, offers the most through-written account of its subject, ethics.

Trivium opens with a marvellously batty “poet’s dictionary of enchantments” by John Michell, whose esotericism places him at the very heart of Wooden Books’ ethos (some of us fondly remember his book, The View over Atlantis, and his musings on ley lines...) Michell sees each letter as embodying some kind of natural meaning; “in some cases,” he suggests, “even the shapes of letters ... seem to accord with the sounds they denote.” With a nod to Plato’s Cratylus and some splendid cartoons, his dictionary opens the ear to the infinite possibilities of euphonics.

Trivium, then, is a book to dip into for inspiration and delight, though at a fairly hefty price. Put it in the bathroom (other small rooms are available).


The Gramminar: an ICAEW webinar

ICAEW_logoThis is a webinar I delivered for the student community of ICAEW.  It focuses on sentence construction and sequencing.  Towards the end, I also answer a number of questions that the audience posted to us during the webinar.

The four parts of the webinar cover:

  • what grammar is and why it matters;
  • sentences: what they are, how they work and the three different types of sentence;
  • how to write better sentences; and
  • some of the most frequently asked questions about grammar.

 

Click on the image to access the video.

Gramminar

I produced a handout containing answers to questions, together with a list of books and other resources.  Download a copy: 

Download Answers, books and other resources_blogversion.

I wrote this webinar to support one of the ladders of professional development for the ACA, the ICAEW Chartered Account qualification.  The ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant) is one of the most advanced learning and professional development programmes available. It is valued around the world in business, practice and the public sector. 

Find out more about the ACA here.

Professional development is an essential component of the ACA qualification.  It prepares students to successfully handle a variety of situations that they will encounter in their careers as chartered accountants.

Find out more about the seven professional ladders of the ACA here.

 


'Less' and 'fewer'

10 items or less

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This controversy rumbles on.  The basic rule is:

Less of amount; fewer of number.

(We’ll talk about rules in a moment.)

Use fewer when referring to anything that you can count.

    These days, people buy fewer newspapers.

    We have fewer women studying science than we would like.

Use less when you’re referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural (for example: air, time, traffic, music).

    At the end of the week I always seem to have less money.

    Now that I’m singing regularly in a choir, I listen to less music on the radio.

We also use less with numbers on their own.

    His weight fell from 18 stone to less than 12.

When numbers refer to distance, time, ages or sums of money, we use less.  That’s because we’re thinking of the number as measuring an amount of distance, time, age or money; we’re not counting the individual kilometres, minutes, years or pennies.

    Their marriage lasted less than two years.

    Trafalgar Square is less than three miles from the Tower of London.

    The project should take less than four weeks to complete.

    They had been married for less than three years.

    The operation should cost less than £3000. 

In 2008, The Daily Telegraph reported that Tesco was replacing its checkout notices reading ‘Ten items or less’ after a long-standing run-in with grammatical sticklers.  An admirably honest spokesman for the store admitted:  “The debate about what is right has been going on for years now, and I still don't think we know if 'less' or 'fewer' is correct.”

Maybe, in the end, they needn’t have worried.  The Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage later commented:

    Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which     refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer     (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).

 [Thanks to the Oxford Words blog for that citation.]

And in fact, the whole controversy about less and fewer is arguably a case of misguided pedantry. 

The plain fact is that English speakers have use less for countable nouns for the best part of a thousand years. 

Ikon_of_King_St._Alfred_the_GreatBoth less and few derive from old Germanic languages, and they’re first recorded in Old English texts in the 700s.  Alfred the Great, no less, used less with countable nouns, in around 888.

Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon.

With less words or with more, whether we may prove it.

Some say that’s because he was using a partitive genitive

Whoa: definition alert. 

The word 'genitive' refers to possession.  The word 'manager's' in the manager's office is in the genitive.  We can also say the office of the manager - though we probably wouldn't.  But we can say most of the managers - and that's a partitive genitive:  a genitive used to indicate a whole divided into parts.  Most of us is another typical example. 

Keeping up? 

Well, læs worda when Alfred wrote it means literally ‘less of words’.  When English lost its genitive plural case – at the end of the Old English period – people simply dropped the of (as you do), and started saying less words (or sheep, or cakes, or whatever’s countable). 

And we’ve continued to use this construction ever since.

Fewer, the comparative of few, appeared in English much later, around 1340.   So it was always rather weaker in the folk memory than less

Fewer received a bit of a boost in the late 18th century – when so many ‘rules’ of correctness were born.  In 1770, Robert Baker wrote his Reflections on the English Language, which was seemingly the first in a long line of guides to correct English usage (of which Fowler is now probably the most famous).  Baker cautiously commented on the use of less:

    This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do     better. "No Fewer than a Hundred" appears to me, not only more elegant than "No less than a     Hundred," but more strictly proper.  

And, with those thoughtful and modest words, a rule was born. 

500-mistakesBy 1856, when New York publisher Daniel Burgess brought out the anonymous Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, the use of less for fewer had become regarded as a - well - daily mistake.

And we've been worrying about it ever since.

The distinction can be useful.  Burchfield quotes a newspaper magazine:

School leavers.  Over the next few years, you're going to see a lot fewer of them.

Which certainly means something quite different to you'll see a lot less of them.

But on the whole, most of us will probably continue to prefer less to fewer - and misguided pedants will continue to rail at us.

All of which goes to show that, like so many rules of usage, this one is essentially artificial.  It doesn't reflect the 'natural' usage of native speakers.  In the end, as The Cambridge Guide to English Usage reminds us, the choice between fewer and less is - more or less - not a matter of correctness, but of style.