THR Web Features   /   July 14, 2022

Past Lives of the Paragraph

The backstory on why it is so hard to say what exactly defines and governs this curious convention.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Paragraph marks from Edwin Herbert Lewis, A History of the English Paragraph, 1894; background: Shutterstock.)

[I]t is a little remarkable that the treatises on rhetoric were so slow in coming to note the organic significance of the paragraph: that the theory of the teachers was so many years behind the practice of the writers.

Edwin Herbert Lewis, A History of the English Paragraph (1894)

[T]here is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (2015)

What is a paragraph? Consult a writing guide, and you will receive an answer like this: “A paragraph is a group of sentences that develops one central idea.” However solid such a definition appears on the page, it quickly melts in the heat of live instruction, as any writing teacher will tell you. Faced with the task of assembling their own paragraphs, students find nearly every word in the formula problematic. How many sentences belong in the “group?” Somewhere along the way, many were taught that five or six will do. But then out there in the world, they have seen (or heard rumors of) bulkier and slimmer specimens, some spilling over pages, some consisting of a single sentence. And how does one go about “developing” a central idea? Is there a magic number of subpoints or citations? Most problematic of all is the notion of the main “idea” itself. What qualifies? Facts? Propositions? Your ideas? Someone else’s?

In his 1928 English Prose Style, the poet and art critic Herbert Read argued that there’s no point in fussing about the “vague” notion of a central “idea” anyway, since it “will be found of little application to the paragraphs we find in literature,” a claim that Read illustrates with unruly precedents from Thomas Babington Macaulay, John Milton, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. What Read clarifies is not only that single-minded definitions buckle under even minimal stress. Taking up his nearly century-old book, one recognizes a peculiar tradition in which one textbook after another, one generation after another, has promoted a blueprint for paragraph construction conspicuously at odds with the prose of the most highly acclaimed stylists of the English language.

What gives? The tension reflects the paragraph’s curious history as a punctuation mark and unit of thought. In fact, my opening question—what is a paragraph?—only gets more complicated as we gaze further and further into the past, as the paragraph gradually dwindles to a thin line in the margins. This backstory explains why it is so hard to say what exactly a paragraph is and, in turn, why we struggle now to legislate its parameters. But this isn’t an entirely despairing story: To recall the paragraph’s past lives is also to consider how previous generations have put their thoughts in order and to gain thereby a vantage to reconsider our own writing practices.

The trouble begins with the ancient Greeks. Their scribes—and later their Roman imitators—laid out documents in columns on papyrus bookrolls (a.k.a. scrolls) using a method known as scriptio continua in which words are written without spaces in between. The classicist William Johnson has memorably likened the effect to “a tight phalanx of clear, distinct letters, each marching one after the other to form an impression of continuous flow.” But scriptio continua poses an obvious challenge: The reader must sort the marching characters into meaningful words and sentences. Unsurprisingly, scribes and readers over the centuries invented marking systems to aid the reader’s labors of understanding and, equally important, vivid articulation—reading being very much an oral performance in antiquity.

The first such mark—in use from the fourth-century BCE on—was a plain horizontal stroke drawn in the margin alongside or perhaps slightly intruding between lines of the text. This paragraphos (literally, “written beside”) has been called “the first punctuation mark,” though it likely wouldn’t pass muster with modern grade school teachers because it didn’t have a consistent grammatical or rhetorical function. It signified simply that a transition of some kind would take place in the neighboring line—perhaps the beginning of a new sentence or stanza, perhaps a change of speaker in a drama or Platonic dialogue. Typophile Keith Houston has rightly called the paragraphos a “crude instrument.” Its pliability, though, made it eminently useful.

As a mark of change, the paragraphos was a familiar device in the scribal arsenal—along with techniques such as outdenting, enlarging letters, and leaving empty space— for identifying subsections of texts, including those that conform to our sense of paragraph-scale. However, and here we run into our first bump in the narrative, classicists and biblical scholars have debated whether to call these chunks “paragraphs,” at least in the modern sense. First of all, save for a few hints otherwise, these marks cannot be attributed to the authors of the documents; they represent a later (perhaps centuries-later) reader’s or scribe’s interpretation of a given document’s structure (which sometimes varies between copies). More importantly, classical rhetoric had no concept of “the paragraph” as “a generic unit of discourse,” as the rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has observed. To be sure, ancient rhetoricians were formidable scholars, and left behind an enormous body of useful counsel about language (poetic and prosaic), argumentation, and education, among other matters. But their principal charge was the training of orators, and though some teachers encouraged writing exercises to that end, none taught the skill of assembling a series of written blocks of text, each designed to unfold ideas, themes, subjects, incidents, etc. Antiquity, in short, provided the terminology from which the paragraph derives but no edicts to govern its production.

The medievals gradually disbanded the scriptio continua phalanx. First its field was taken. In the late Roman Empire, the bookroll was displaced by the new stack-and-flip writing technology, the codex (what we usually mean by “book” now), which had been adopted early on by Christian communities and was better suited to northern lands where papyrus was hard to come by but animal skins weren’t. The codex introduced the page—a new surface, framing device, and interface whose possibilities scribes and artists of the High Middle Ages would consciously exploit. But the more immediate threat to scriptio continua was the difficulty it posed for young monks with dodgy Latin. Transitional figures, including St. Jerome (c. 342–420) and Isidore of Seville (560–636), made efforts to make words and clauses more easily discernible to novice readers by recycling old practices of dotting and aligning clauses to increase readability. The more decisive change, though, was the development of what the paleographer M.B. Parkes dubbed a new “grammar of legibility” in the eighth and ninth centuries—among Irish monks, their English counterparts, and, further still, within Charlemagne’s realm (the so-called “Carolingian Renaissance”). These scribes employed multiple strategies to produce a more legible text, including devising the first miniscule script (i.e., “lower-case”), but none was more conspicuous, or momentous, than their practice of leaving space between words as they wrote. The book historian Paul Saenger likened an early form of this style of writing to aeration—as if the words were at last given room to breathe on their own.

Like their ancient predecessors, medieval scribes had a number of ways of identifying subsections, including the paragraphus (note the Latinization), albeit now in its mature classical form resembling a Greek gamma. (Isidore was still, influentially, commending it as a strategy for signaling beginnings in the seventh century.) Yet in the High Middle Ages, the paragraphus would be eclipsed by a mark known alternatively as a paraph or capitulum, whose origins lie in the Roman practice of placing “K” (from the Etruscan word for “head,” kaput) at the beginning of chapters and sections. Over the centuries, that K became a C, and the C was later merged with slanting bars, ultimately producing the modern paragraph mark, known in English as the pilcrow (¶).

Normally inserted into the text by a specialist known as a rubricator (for the red ink he often used), the paraph would become a ubiquitous feature of medieval documents—used to highlight a variety of chunks and gobbets, including sentences, glosses, verses, and components of arguments (as in Aquinas’s Summa). It is not uncommon to find a medieval page speckled with paraphs, especially in works featuring commentaries such as the medieval best-bestseller, the Bible. The image of the paraph was so recognizable that a late Middle English poet could describe Christ’s five wounds as if they were paraphs: “Wrout is on þe bok with-oute / V. paraffys grete & stoute, / Bolyd in rose red” (“Wrought on the book without / Five paraphs great and stout /Standing out in rose red”).

The sign’s ubiquity was not the only advance. Medieval authors also demonstrate a growing awareness of the paragraph as a distinct textual unit. One of the earliest examples of this shift in French appears in the abbot and poet Gautier de Coincy’s (1177–1236) Miracles de Nostre Dame. In verses discussing his practice of including codas that sum up the morals of the work’s sections, Coincy advises the indifferent reader to “skip it at the appropriate paragraph” (“Que cui la queue ne plaira / Au polagrefe la laira”). Some medieval authors even point the reader to paragraphs appearing in others’ books. “Hostience [i.e., Hostiensis], in Summa de decimis,” writes a late fourteenth-century Middle English author in this vein, “in the paraf, Quid si clericus, seith that a man shall not geue tithis to such a clerk.” The Middle Ages, in other words, discovered the paragraph’s potential as a location device.

Medieval readers and writers were thus increasingly attentive to the visual appearance of the page, and as result recognized the paragraph’s significant place within it. Nonetheless, the paragraph does not seem to have interested medieval rhetoricians. Thus, several more centuries pass in our story without supplying instructions about a paragraph’s fit proportions or packing material.

Enter the Print Revolution

The practices of early modern printers shaped our mental image of a paragraph. In the first decades after Gutenberg’s great innovation, the period of the so-called “incunabula” (Latin for “swaddling clothes”), printed books largely, and understandably, mimicked the conventions of page design governing manuscript books. Accordingly, printers often left spaces at the heads of chapters, sections, and sentences for the rubricator to come in later to add paraphs. Printers also cast pilcrows for this purpose, translating an ancient manuscript practice into the new world of metal type.

The first clear sign of a break with those conventions is found in the great Venetian printer Aldus Manutius’s 1499 edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. At the beginnings of Aldus’s paragraphs, one finds no paraphor paragraphusor littera notabilior or any other kind of decoration. Previous printers had left blank space at the ends of paragraphs to clarify a break; Aldus was the first to leave open space at the start, making this book the first to use paragraph indentation. Despite Aldus’s prestige, the practice was not widely adopted for decades, becoming the industry standard only in the seventeenth century. The pilcrow’s usage diminished as a result, though it remained in the public eye—in the English context at least—for several centuries thanks to its service as the paragraph marker in the Authorized Version (a.k.a. King James Version) of the Bible.

Early modern dictionaries show us that the concept too was in flux. Thomas Blount’s 1656 Glossographia, for example, defines “paragraph” as follows: “(paragraphus) a Pilcrow; whatever is comprehended in one sentence; where the line is broken off (which Printers call a break) there ends the paragraph. Books are most often commonly divided into Chapters, those into Sections, and Sections again in Paragraffs.” As Blount’s definition attests, early moderns thought of the paragraph as a punctuation mark (and in this regard was usually discussed in grammar books alongside periods, colons, and commas); a sentence, verse (of Scripture), or subsection of a document cordoned off by that mark; or, most strikingly for present purposes, a typographically defined quantity of text. The last possibility would come increasingly into focus over the ensuing decades, with the result that the 1706 new edition of The New World of English Words would define a paragraph as “a Portion of Matter in a Discourse or Treatise, contained between two Breaks, i.e. which begins with a new Line, and ends where the Line breaks off.” (Meanwhile the next entry, for “paragraphe,” harkens back to our Greek starting point: “a Writing or Note in the Margin of a Book.”)

But early moderns were not just seeing the paragraph differently thanks to typography. They were also (at long last) appraising the paragraph as an aspect of the writer’s craft. The emergent periodical culture of the late seventeenth century was a clear stimulus, as the pages of newspapers and magazines consisted of nothing but paragraphs. In The Spectator #134 (1711), for example, Richard Steele cites a fictitious reader who reports finding “each Paragraph” of the paper “freight[ed] either with useful or delightful Notions.” (Meanwhile, a character in Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal [1777] bewails the downside of the periodical paragraph: “I am sneered at by all my acquaintance—paragraphed in the news-papers.”) In The Adventurer #138 (1754), Samuel Johnson could name the difficulty of paragraph construction among the “common distresses of the writer.” He explains:

Sometimes many thoughts present themselves; but so confused and unconnected, that they are not without difficulty reduced to method, or concatenated in a regular and dependent series; the mind falls at once into a labyrinth, of which neither the beginning nor end can be discovered, and toils and struggles without progress or extrication.

Johnson goes on to lament that too often a writer requires—but fails to find—“only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the other.” “[A]fter a long study and vexation,” Johnson continues, “the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.” His contemporary Edward Gibbon, author of the mammoth Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789), likewise worked by whole paragraphs, which he memorably likened to a process of casting and tuning: “It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.”

Despite all of this attention to paragraphs, grammars and rhetorical handbooks would not address the subject in more than passing fashion until the very end of the eighteenth century. The breakthrough book, though, was a popular one: the American Quaker Lindley Murray’s 1795 English Grammar, which would go through numerous editions in the ensuing century in both England and the United States. Wedged in the midst of his section on punctuation, Murray decorously, even tentatively, offers “a few general directions respecting the division of a composition into paragraphs.” In four short paragraphs, he advises as follows: Different subjects “unless they be very short” should be separated into different paragraphs; long subjects should be divided into multiple paragraphs, with the breaks ideally made “at sentiments of the most weight, or that call for peculiar attention”; “[t]he facts, premises, and conclusions of a subject, sometimes naturally point out the separations into paragraphs”; and when a “connected subject” is divided into paragraphs, “a suitable turn of expression, exhibiting the connexion [sic] of the broken parts, will give beauty and force to the division.”

While this is hardly a “theory” of the paragraph, Murray’s advice is nonetheless suggestive. He begins with the pragmatic problem of length, acknowledging that a paragraph cannot be too short, or it lacks substance, or too long, or it may overtax the reader. (This would be a theme in subsequent grammars: “Do not crowd too many thoughts and reasonings into one sentence or paragraph, so as to exceed the capacity of those you address,” writes Sir Richard Phillips in A Practical Grammar of the English Language [1809]). But Murray also perceives distinct rhetorical and aesthetic possibilities within the paragraph’s structure. As we would say now, Murray senses “hot spots,” especially at the breaks, where words’ impact heightens. The paragraph is being presented to its young reader as a series of distinct formal and functional problems and opportunities. To mismanage one was to risk losing one’s reader. Managing one’s material well, by contrast, gave one’s best points even greater effect.

Leo Damrosch has argued that the “fully crafted paragraph” was the unit of composition for Johnson and Gibbon, but the point holds for so many of the readers and writers of the age. There is no doubt that by the end of the eighteenth century the paragraph was recognized as a common problem and, in the right hands, a verbal art.

Victorian Regulations

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have now covered some twenty-two centuries and not yet spoken about topic sentences, supporting sentences, or concluding ones. Even with Murray’s gentle “general directions,” we are far from the unequivocal pronouncement that “A paragraph is a group of sentences that develops one central idea.” In this way, the history I have been tracing is instructive, especially for readers who were taught in grade school that topic sentences and the like are as elemental as oxygen. They are not. In fact, the seemingly ageless dictates on paragraph construction drilled into so many of us as children are among the most modern components of writing instruction. Strange as it may seem, the long-awaited law-giver—the Solon or Lycurgus of the Paragraph—was a Victorian philosopher. Enter Alexander Bain.

Bain’s name ought to be better known given how industrious the man was—in addition to making important contributions in linguistics and logic, Bain was a central figure in the development of psychology as a discipline and a cofounder of the prestigious journal Mind (which would later publish notable papers by Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, and Alan Turing). While composition had been an interest of Bain’s since the 1840s, he likely wouldn’t have become an authority on the paragraph if not for the merger of two universities in his native Scotland, which allowed Bain to become at once the Regius Chair of Logic and Regius Chair of English Literature at the University of Aberdeen in 1861. At this point, Bain became a teacher of writing. Within short order he had composed a textbook, English Composition and Rhetoric (1866), which rhetoricians would later credit with offering “the first systematic formulation of paragraph theory” (to use Paul Rodgers’s phrasing).

That theory bears the unmistakable stamp of Bain’s philosophical training. As Rodgers astutely observes, Bain and his epigones “worked by deduction, first assuming a close organic parallel between sentence and paragraph, and then applying traditional sentence-law to the paragraph.” Bain’s watchword was “unity.” “A sentence,” he writes,” is required to possess Unity,” by which he means that “every part” must be “subservient to one principal affirmation.” Bain understood the paragraph as the “division of discourse next higher than the sentence,” and accordingly defines it as “a collection, or series, of sentences, with unity of purpose” (italics mine). Bain was not unique. His contemporary Joseph Angus likewise names unity as a shared characteristic of the sentence and paragraph in A Handbook of the English Tongue (1861): “Paragraphs require the element of unity as much as sentences; but the unity is more comprehensive.”

What set English Composition and Rhetoric apart was that Bain could explain how to create unity by devising six succinct rules for paragraph construction. They are as follows:

  1. “The bearing of each sentence upon what precedes shall be explicit and unmistakable.”
  2. “When several consecutive sentences iterate or illustrate the same idea, they should, so far as possible, be formed alike.”
  3. “The opening sentence, unless so constructed as to be obviously preparatory, is expected to indicate with prominence the subject of the paragraph.”
  4. “A paragraph should be consecutive, or free from dislocation.”
  5. “A paragraph should possess unity; which implies a definite purpose, and forbids digressions and irrelevant matter.”
  6. “As in the sentence, so in the paragraph, a due proportion should obtain between principal and subordinate statements.”

Behind Bain’s somewhat stilted Victorian phrasing lies a grand vision of organic harmony—in which every sentence, every clause, every part and particle has its appropriate place. Indeed, in explaining Rule #3, Bain says as much directly: “Each paragraph has a plan dictated by the nature of the composition.” And Bain did not simply issue decrees: His supporting analysis and examples dig into the nitty-gritty of conjunctions, relative pronouns, coordination, subordination, and parallelism in order to show how it can be done. (At one point, he even suggests an alteration to the Lord’s Prayer to achieve proper parallelism.)

Bain is working in the opposite direction of contemporary commentators such as Steven Pinker, for whom the paragraph is an entirely artificial construct, lacking any connection to a deeper psychological or epistemological reality. For Bain, by contrast, the paragraph is the hub where thoughts align properly to form meaningful sequences of ideas. The paragraph is the staging ground for a sort of cogitatio continua, a phalanx for the mind. It is this vision of the paragraph’s intellectual unity and centrality that underwrites Bain’s argument in the 1887 enlarged edition of English Composition and Rhetoric that the “Paragraph Laws […] are the general principles that must regulate the structure of sections, chapters, and books.” Bain’s doctrines exalt the once marginal paragraph to perhaps the highest heights it has yet attained; in this system, it is at once the core component of composition and the ideal pattern of the whole.

English Composition and Rhetoric did not cause a great stir upon its initial publication, though the book did attract an American publisher in 1867 and a second London edition a year later. As Rodgers explains, Bain’s conception of the paragraph “was elaborated and enforced” during the decade of 1884–1894 due, in particular, to the recognition of American composition instructors, including John Genung of Amherst College and Barrett Wendell of Harvard, of the need for a theory of the paragraph to guide their efforts. “Within the last generation,” G.R. Carpenter of Columbia College explains in his 1893 Exercises in Rhetoric and English Composition, “and especially the present moment, proper paragraph-structure has become one of the most essential parts of English composition.”

In his 1894 dissertation at the University of Chicago, A History of the English Paragraph (itself a notable development), Edwin Herbert Lewis named Bain “perhaps the ablest writer on rhetoric since Aristotle” on the strength of his six rules. Surveying the burgeoning literature on the paragraph, Lewis observed that Bain’s regulations “have re-appeared with new names and various modifications in the best text-books of the last quarter-century.” Thus, Rule #3, concerning “opening sentences,” would contribute to the rise of the topic sentence, and several of the rules would be invoked in subsequent authors’ calls for “unity” and “coherence.” To this day, textbook definitions of the paragraph, like the one with which I began this essay, are indebted to Bain’s theorizing.

Challengers began to appear in the ensuing decades (such as the aforementioned Herbert Read), but Bain’s theory held broad sway until the later decades of the twentieth century, when it faced a series of theoretical objections within the field of writing studies, most rooted in empirical studies. (One famous survey showed, for example, the paucity of topic sentences in popular essay writing.) But the opposition failed to generate a suitable replacement, leading, as the rhetorician Mike Duncan has observed, to two principal positions among instructors. The “prescriptive” camp “stands by Bain's ideas of explicit structure and first position topic sentences,” arguing that a paragraph “a definite, ideal structure that can be described, measured, and emulated for instructional purposes.” The “descriptive” option, by contrast, adopts “a looser, inductive approach to instruction, with Bain-style rules limited to suggesting a structural ideal that is only rarely seen.” This may seem like highbrow nitpicking. But the debate has obvious consequences in the classroom. Where the prescriptive model reigns, students have a model to work with, but the model may create as many problems as it solves. (Rodgers calls the Bain paragraph a “deductive cage.”) Meanwhile, as Duncan writes, “the problem with descriptivism […] is that it is devilishly difficult and perhaps equally cruel to explain to struggling students that they can do anything with a paragraph as long as it works.”

Rather than throw up his hands as Pinker does, Duncan sees the impasse as an occasion for fresh thinking about the paragraph’s nature and function. “While we have literally thousands of years of style discussion to lean on at the sentence level,” he writes, “the paragraph is a relatively new concern” for professional rhetoricians, “and the scant available terminology reflects its still-evolving youth.” Duncan calls, in turn, for better terminology, better textbooks (which acknowledge a world beyond Bain), and a reexamination of old concepts that have never been sufficiently theorized such as “motion,” “flow,” “harmony,” and “rhythm.”

I will not pretend to know the solution to the paragraph in theory or practice, but I believe the history just reviewed sheds some helpful light on the subject. I suggest three ways to conceive of paragraphs rooted in its past lives reaching back to its Greek origins. These are not Bain-style regulations for what a paragraph must be. One clear takeaway from today’s history lesson is surely that there is not now, has never been, and will never be a single Platonic form of the paragraph to which all others must conform. The paragraph has evolved over time to meet a variety of practical needs and aesthetic impulses. It has been, to return to Johnson’s metaphor, woven and unwoven and then woven anew many times over the centuries. What follows, then, are proposals to help my fellow practitioners to reflect on what a paragraph can be.

Paragraphs as guidelines: Before setting to work, ancient, medieval, and modern scribes alike have used a tool—perhaps an awl, perhaps a pencil, perhaps another means of impressing or scratching—to draw lines to guide their subsequent labors at hand-lettering. These marks are of obvious utility to the scribe. They are also beneficial to the reader because they prevent the script from wandering or alternating haphazardly in size. Guidelines are, in this way, an element of Parkes’s “grammar of legibility”—or part of its necessary infrastructure. Yet the guidelines also facilitate artistic expression—since they also establish a field outside the lines in which the scribe’s flourishes may trespass. I propose that we treat the “rules” of Bain and company, particularly those designed to promote coherence, like these ruled lines—as elected parameters from which we may deviate as needed. The spirit of what I propose is well stated by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their case for the paragraph in Modern Rhetoric (1949): “Since communication of one’s thoughts is at best a difficult business, it is part of common sense, not to mention good manners, to mark for the reader the divisions of our thought, and thus make the thought structure visible upon the page.” Paragraphing is normally taught as a technical rather than an ethical activity, but as Brooks and Warren’s delightful phrase “good manners” reminds us, it can be something we undertake courteously, even lovingly, on behalf of our readers. A topic sentence, on this understanding, is a kindness rather than an eternal mandate.

Paragraphs as plastic masses: Paragraphs have been imagined as metal cast in molds, woven thread, measures of music, and vessels laden with ideas. For Herbert Read, the best image is of clay, whether shaped by a “modeller” into a figure or potter at the wheel, her hands applying “downward” and “driving” forces. The metaphor is not unexpected given that others have described paragraphs as a kind sculpture. But Read puts his own twist on the concept by emphasizing the relationship between the shape and the writer’s thought: “There is about good writing a visual actuality. It exactly reproduces what we should metaphorically call the contour of our thought. The metaphor is for once exact: thought has a contour or shape. The paragraph is the perception of this contour or shape.” He continues: “The paragraph is a plastic mass, and it takes its shape from the thought it has to express: its shape is the thought.” What Read so clearly perceives is that a paragraph is not simply the record of our thinking—as if that is done “off page.” A paragraph is thinking—it is the space in which we do the difficult business of making connections, arranging evidence and incidents, trying to get from one state of understanding to another. It is for this reason that Read so vehemently rejects the notion that a paragraph has only one idea. A dead paragraph, on Read’s telling, is monotonous; a living one allows us to see an active mind at work. The picture of the paragraph as a “plastic mass,” moreover, seems to me especially helpful for thinking about the variety of possible configurations that any given material might take depending on whose hands take it up (pace Bain’s view that the paragraph has a necessary shape dictated by the “plan” of the essay). In turn, Read’s vision of writing as modeling or throwing pots allows for writers to mature into their own signature paragraph shapes.

Paragraphs as readers’ prerogatives: A few years ago, I faced a minor professional crisis when looking over a reading I had assigned by a certain notable critic. Said critic has a penchant for composing labyrinthine paragraphs, which, I now realized, would quickly exhaust my students. Although I felt a tinge of compunction about tampering with those paragraphs, I set to work knowing this was the only way salvaging the reading. The breaks came easily, though, and I soon found the work enjoyable. I was seeing the piece in a new way, and I “discovered” several remarkable sentences that I had overlooked while navigating my way through the labyrinths. What is more, the students loved the reading and several commented on sentences that had been shifted to front or back end “hot spots,” their force and beauty elevated just as Lindley Murray suggests.

Now a confession: That exercise so emboldened me that it is now a standard practice of mine in handling readings in lower-level classes, and I have repeatedly observed the same results. In my own reading, I have been amused to find confessions from fellow paragraph-tinkerers, such as these remarks by John Maxwell in the preface to his 1727 translation of Richard Cumberland’s A Treatise of the Laws of Nature:

His Paragraphs also, in many places, are not divided in such a manner as to give the most Light to his Argument, sometimes joining them where they should be divided, and dividing them where the Reasoning requires that they should be join’d. All these Circumstances conspire to make the Reading of his valuable Work, a laborious Task, which, therefore, few Readers will be at the Pains to do. This I thought well deserv’d a helping Hand to which I have, therefore, contributed what lay in my power.

The paragraph began as a reader’s mark; to the reader it should return. Certainly, we have the technology to make paragraphs malleable, whether by loosening the controls of digital environments or taking up a pencil in print ones. A pilcrow or a paraph will do. In fact, making a new paragraph is as easy as drawing a thin line in the margin.