Myth Buster: How Many Sentences Must a Paragraph Have?


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”:


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

  1. harper

    We were debating this in a human studies class I took. We decided that the shortest paragraph is only a single letter.

    “Who did this?”
    ” I. “

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-21-2016

      Yes, that’s possible. Sticklers would argue that it isn’t a complete sentence, and therefore doesn’t count. But I’m not a stickler.

  2. Louis

    Just realized that most paragraphs I wrote only have four sentences. It is like four-on-the-floor rhythm pattern used in music.

  3. Anna

    How many sentences per paragraph do you think are too many? I’m writing a 5 paragraph essay and some of my paragraphs have 15 sentences… too much?

  4. sam

    Actually in a paragraph written in English the rule is you have to have on average of 5 sentences for every paragraph. That’s not saying you have to have at least 5 sentences just average throughout the entire essay.

  5. sam

    Actually in a paragraph written in English the rule is you have to have on average of 5 sentences for every paragraph. That’s not saying you have to have at least 5 sentences just average throughout the entire essay

  6. Bob p. torkpah
    Bob p. torkpah08-30-2016

    Paragraph should have three(3)-fiva(5) sentences.

  7. Elise Sheppard
    Elise Sheppard07-05-2016

    Brian, thank you for clarifying these ‘rules’ for us. When I struggle with this I remember what my editor sister advises, “For Pete’s sake, write in thought blocks, not in artificial limitations of sentence number.”
    And then there is the theory of Barbara Cartland, who, ‘though she wrote absolute schlock, was one of the most prolific and successful of authors. She believed that people read best in short paragraphs. I believe hers were usually two or three sentences.
    Liz Jones is right; a bit of space does make the scene more vivid. As a musician I was aware that the silence within the performance was just as important as the notes played.
    Whatever floats your boat… within reason. (Cartland used a lot of ellipses.)
    Thanks again for an excellent blog.

  8. DT

    Paragraphs are thought blocks. If a thought is best conveyed by one sentence, fine. If it needs ten sentences, fine. The problem in school is that students will find loopholes, so teachers mandate 3-5 sentences. That’s all well an good, but you have to teach the kids to divide their knowledge into thought groups before putting pen to paper. Even in college I ran into issues where I needed to back up and organize my research before I could proceed. Educationally we’ve sort of got this mechanical concept of writing that ends up divorcing the process of writing from the reasons for writing. Give somebody a reason to write and they’ll figure out how to make the paper shine.

  9. Sherry

    Thank you. You just disproved my English teacher. She and I had a falling out over this very thing. Thank you for proving me right. 🙂

  10. deEdeE

    Ah. yes!
    in school you will literally get a btf if you dont have more that 2 sentqnces in a paragraph.
    i remid my teacher every day that i have a book published and over half the paragraphs are one sentace long, not that they beleive me!
    thank you for thiiiiiiiiiiiiis

  11. strikerlloyd

    Was just helping my 4th grader with a lesson tonight where it called for a paragraph on a free response question. Teacher shot back that he would not get full credit because he did not include enough sentences. I apologized and told her that it was my error because we were both unsure of the number of sentences required. She indicated that this was taught in 3rd grade but perhaps he forgot. I attached your link showing where I had gained my insight. She gave him full credit but we now understand that she would like 5 sentences. 1 main idea, 3 supporting statements and 1 conclusion.

    Thanks for your clear communication on the matter. Much easier to understand the full picture.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-19-2015

      Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad this article helped!

  12. Toby

    Thanks for sharing! Now everything is so much clearer

  13. Cmiuc

    agree to disagree…

    The writer needs to make sure the point he is covered from his intro as well as the conclusion has been covered efficiently. (in summary, essays, etc) A novel is whole different forum in writing. Usually I have seen a 1 sentence in a novel where it is someone is making a statement or conversation…
    Additionally, the writer need to be experienced in being able to write with a 1 sentence paragraph. I think you need to help guide the students here a little bit better otherwise… they will try to do this 1 sentence paragraphing with bad results.

    I would never allow my Asian students to get buy doing this…

    • Spellchecker

      Ah, but would you allow said “Asian students” to get BY doing this?

  14. Sarah

    now I get to prove this to my teacher! lol. by the way is there a maximum to a paragraph or is that a myth too?

    • Sarah

      And thank you for the info!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-11-2014

      There is no maximum length of a paragraph generally. Of course, a teacher may set arbitrary restrictions.

      • Bjørnar Skjæret
        Bjørnar Skjæret12-12-2014

        I agree, it is up to the TEACHER. I am sure teachers can give reasons for letting students write paragraphs consisting of 5-10 sentences. That’s what I do 🙂

  15. Matt

    So I was also under the impression that min 5 rule until my boss red marked one of my research papers and told me to break things up, VPs don’t want to read which made me laugh. So how do we know when it should be longer and when we can get by with shorter paragraphs. As this depends on audiance and writing style I would assume, I am working in a company settings and Directors and VPs are my typical audiance. I am still a novice-intermediate with spelling and writing.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-23-2014

      Hi Matt,

      The proper length of any paragraph is almost always subjective. There is no rule that I know of. Single-sentence paragraphs are common in newspaper articles and fiction, but not so much in business writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t include them. I have found in my experience with novice writers that they tend to pack more sentences than necessary into each paragraph. Paragraph breaks make reading easy on the eyes. Keep related sentences together. When the topic or the focus of the paragraph seems to shift, start a new paragraph. It tends to be instinctive.

  16. Some College Student
    Some College Student09-28-2014

    I really want to thank you for writing this article.

    I was just researching about the minimum length a paragraph can be because I’m currently writing my first essay for college english and I was really wondering if I had done something wrong when I had a single sentence paragraph in my essay.

    In the back of my mind I remembered hearing or reading somewhere that it is possible to have a single sentence paragraph, but in school the three-to-five-sentence rule in drilled into us (I think I can recite it even in my sleep), so in reality I was looking for a confirmation. This article proved to be just what I was looking for and it also confirmed a few more writing tips that I had been unsure of.

    I also want to mention that I really enjoyed reading how you wrapped up this article. It definitely drove your point home and I couldn’t help but smile, because it was so flawlessly done.

    So thank you very much Mr. Wasko.

  17. Sue Bannon
    Sue Bannon07-02-2014

    I ran across your article when researching how “many” sentences are needed to make a paragraph. While in a BSN program, I kept getting marked down for “only” have two or three sentences in a paragraph. This happened two or three times in a 15-page paper. Crazy, right? I am a former English teacher/journalist, but I didn’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face and tell the grader she was absolutely wrong. I thought it was a pretty big misperception though.

    Thanks for addressing this issue so succinctly.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-02-2014

      You’re welcome. Unless the grader specifically required that paragraphs contain some minimum number, the marking down is indefensible. But you are probably right to leave it alone and give her what she wants.

      • kijk

        A paragraph is 5 to 7 sentences

  18. Bethany

    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!

  19. Tim Meloche
    Tim Meloche03-19-2014

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

  20. yellybarlian

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

  21. yellybarlian

    Thanks…no more confusion

  22. Kotyba

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

  23. lee

    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.

  24. Kim Thompson
    Kim Thompson02-26-2014

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

  25. Jamie

    Isn’t the last sentence a fragment?

  26. 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.

  27. Karin

    Very useful! Thanks.

  28. Sara

    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!

  29. Just Me
    Just Me03-14-2013

    I think paragraphs should be 5-7 sentences.

    • mrgilbe1

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

  30. Just Me
    Just Me03-14-2013

    I think it should just be 3-5.

    • deEdeE

      thing is, your paragraph above is one sentance ^.^

  31. 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!

  32. 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!

  33. 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.

  34. 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!

  35. 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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