Myth Buster: How Many Sentences Must a Paragraph Have?

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I used to ask this question at some point in every English class I taught:Raised hands

“How many sentences in a paragraph?”

Kids would typically answer “Five!” or “Three!” They were so confident, too. But they were wrong. A paragraph, according to Merriam-Webster is “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.” That’s right — a paragraph can (and often does) contain just one sentence. Open any book, particularly any novel, to any random page, and I’ll bet you find somewhere nearby a single-sentence paragraph.

Single-sentence paragraphs are common in journalism, where tight, succinct prose and short, readable paragraphs are highly valued. They are abundant in narrative works that include dialogue (since a new paragraph is required every time a new speaker is quoted). But what about essays, research papers, and other typically academic types of writing? Shouldn’t paragraphs be fuller and more complex in those?

The answer is generally yes. Well-crafted essay paragraphs are normally fleshed out through several related sentences that illustrate a point or make a convincing argument. Please don’t hear me saying that it’s just fine to write one-sentence paragraphs whenever and wherever you like.

My point is simply that writing teachers ought to never suggest that there is some authoritative rule about the number of sentences required for a “legal” paragraph. It’s misleading and unnecessary to do so. More than one WriteAtHome writing coach has come to us under the impression that it’s okay to demand some minimum number of sentences in every paragraph. If any of our coaches still believe that, I hope they read this post!

Help Students Write Better with WriteAtHome!

So how is it that so many students and teachers believe the three- or five-sentence paragraph rule? There’s a simple explanation, really. Students, like most of us human beings, are lazy. And if a teacher assigns a paragraph on a topic without specifying the length, some kid will submit a short, single sentence and expect full credit. In fact, once students learn that a complete sentence can be composed of a single word, and a paragraph can consist of a single sentence, it’s only a matter of time before some smarty-pants is assigned “a paragraph that shows action,” and submits this “paragraph”:

Go.

Two letters, but technically, a complete sentence (the subject is the understood you).

So, to prevent this kind of silliness, teachers understandably began quantifying their expectations: Write a paragraph of at least five sentences that shows action. Some teachers probably made it a permanent policy: In this class, all paragraphs must have at least five sentences. All that is fine. It’s an artificially imposed rule for a particular academic purpose. No problem. The problems came when teachers quit making it clear that it was their rule and not a universal rule of writing.

For the record, I think wise teachers and writing coaches should feel free to ask students to avoid one- or two-sentence paragraphs for any particular assignment or course. It can be a good instructional tool. Just be sure to explain that the actual definition of paragraph permits the single-sentence variety. You have the power to raise expectations, but not to redefine the word.

Because paragraphs like this are fine.

*****

Post any comments and questions below. Bloggers love comments.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Bethany
    Bethany04-17-2014

    I don’t remember how I got here, actually, but I really appreciated your article! I also really appreciate that you love the Phillies, and music, and that great list of loves. =) It made me smile!

    Oh! Now I remember! I’m planning my student’s homework for the weekend and I thought it was important to know the answer when they inevitably ask me “How many sentences, teacher?”

    Thanks again!

  2. Tim Meloche
    Tim Meloche03-19-2014

    I now feel as if everything I had been taught was a lie.

  3. yellybarlian
    yellybarlian03-10-2014

    Thanks ….finally, there’s no more confusion for my students:)

  4. yellybarlian
    yellybarlian03-10-2014

    Thanks…no more confusion

  5. Kotyba
    Kotyba03-04-2014

    Best,I am going to prove this to my teacher, thank you

  6. lee
    lee03-02-2014

    I am writing a memoir and wanted to see the rule on paragraph length. Thank you for sharing

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko03-02-2014

      Glad to help. Thanks for taking the time to comment. And best of luck with the memoir.

  7. Kim Thompson
    Kim Thompson02-26-2014

    Loved this. I am a tutor and found this very useful.
    Blessings!

  8. Jamie
    Jamie10-30-2013

    Isn’t the last sentence a fragment?

  9. kyah venham
    kyah venham09-18-2013

    really help

    • kyah venham
      kyah venham09-18-2013

      sorry I ment it really helped me because I am doing a paper for mrs. summers my teacher the paper
      is called what I love………… I love kittens what do you love?

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko09-18-2013

        Well, I wouldn’t trust anyone who DOESN’T love kittens! I love lots of things–God, my wife, my kids, my dog, my job, my church, books, running, music, teaching, writing, lobsters, cheeseburgers, cookies and cream milkshakes, the Philadelphia Phillies, mountains, beaches, sunny days, bad jokes, and back rubs.

  10. Karin
    Karin09-08-2013

    Very useful! Thanks.

  11. Sara
    Sara07-04-2013

    Great post. It is very enlightening, credible, and well-written. I never knew the 3-5 sentences rule was a myth. Wow, to think after all these years, I never knew.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-04-2013

      Thanks for taking the time to share your response, Sara!

  12. Just Me
    Just Me03-14-2013

    I think paragraphs should be 5-7 sentences.

    • mrgilbe1
      mrgilbe109-14-2013

      You just broke your own rule, by telling us that in a 1-sentence paragraph.

  13. Just Me
    Just Me03-14-2013

    I think it should just be 3-5.

  14. Jim Henry
    Jim Henry03-13-2013

    You put this very, very well. I came here because I have students in my college writing class who are going to the mat over this five-sentence “rule.” I was never taught that, and I will not hold them to that.

    The analogy I make with my students is the comment attributed to Abe Lincoln. Someone allegedly asked him how long a man’s legs ought to be, and he reportedly said, “Long enough to reach the ground.” It’s the same with paragraphs. Great post!

  15. Sarah Grossman
    Sarah Grossman02-13-2013

    I love this post. I’ve had high school seniors argue with me about the proper length of a paragraph because of what they’re been taught in Engllish class. Thank you for explaining where that myth comes from.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-13-2013

      My pleasure, Sarah. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  16. Wendi Gale
    Wendi Gale01-29-2013

    I am so glad I found this blog!
    My son is in the 4th grade and this year they begin taking standardized testing on writing. He abhors writing. He thinks he’s horrible at it….. and he is, when he’s writing what he thinks the instructor wants. However, he will walk around the house or yard & make up these amazing, fantastical stories. He just has a hard time putting them on paper. So, I told him to write what he wants to read. That worked for a while, until his instructor started giving specific sentence amount rules.
    They started using the IRC model for writing, which I found to be very beneficial in organization. Five paragraphs, the first being the “I” introduction, then 3 “R” or reason paragraphs, then “C” or conclusion.
    Once he got the hang of using this model they amped things up and said,”You must submit 10-12 sentences per paragraph.” How is that even close to ok?? My 4th grader is completely stressed and now has reverted further than he began with the whole, “I can’t write!” business. Today he was so overwhelmed I made him just stop.
    Thanks to this blog, I can now send his instructor some constructive criticism on the length of a paragraph. However, I still believe a paragraph should be longer than 1 sentence, just to give a little “meat” to the essay. :)
    Whatever the case, I thank you Mr. Wasko. Now I can calm my son with proof, because as you should know, Mommy’s know nothing!! :)

    • just my opinion
      just my opinion02-09-2013

      I suggest sending the article to whom ever grades the writing test for your state.

  17. Frederic Durbin
    Frederic Durbin10-19-2011

    I really enjoyed this posting, and I completely agree, too! In Japan, my students frequently worried about how long their paragraphs should be, and I would tell them a typical paragraph has about six to eight sentences (because that’s what my junior-high and high-school teachers told me) — but I always emphasized that that was a description of a typical paragraph, not a rule. And I would show them examples of one-sentence paragraphs, too. (But I’d only show them those once, rather unobtrusively, because I also didn’t want to encourage a bunch of essays composed of one-sentence paragraphs!)

    This leads us to the biggest difference I’ve noticed so far between Japanese university students and WriteAtHome students: my Japanese students tended to start new paragraphs all the time, so that, held at arm’s length, their compositions would look like shopping lists. Some of my younger WriteAtHome students have not quite discovered the advantages of dividing their work into paragraphs, so they turn in big, uninterrupted blocks of text — superparagraphs, like the Earth’s surface before Continental Drift. Adobe Acrobat’s pencil tool comes in very handy for suggesting places to divide up the text!

  18. Liz Jones
    Liz Jones10-15-2011

    I agree! Kids always worry about this. I really prefer papers to err on the side of having more frequent paragraph breaks, because carving a bit of space around the scenes makes them more vivid. It’s also a great way to add emphasis!

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