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Have We Forgotten How to Paragraph?

February 24, 2012

Recently I have been marking a lot of Open University assignments, and time and again I find myself having to correct the paragraphing of otherwise well-presented essays. The collapse of paragraphing, which I first remarked on in an article for the Independent in 2005, continues and even accelerates. Perhaps it’s too late to stop it, but as a last-ditch effort to that end I am reproducing the Independent article ¬†below. (NB – it has come out as block paragraphed in this format, though I wrote it, and it appeared in the newspaper, as indented.)

Call me a pedant – really, go ahead, I won’t mind a bit – but I must protest in the strongest possible terms about the state of the nation’s paragraphing. It is as though a great wave of collective amnesia has swept across the nation, and suddenly no one remembers how to do it any more. I have taught at every level, from basic skills through GCSE through AS and A2, to degree-level courses for the Open University – and at each level the fact is depressingly apparent: students no longer know how to paragraph. I don’t mean they don’t know when to paragraph. Many don’t, of course, but that’s another story. I mean they don’t know how to show a new paragraph, they don’t know what paragraphs should look like on the page.

Once upon a time, it was all very simple. When you came to a new paragraph, you went on to the next line and indented. By a finger space if handwriting, by hitting the space bar three or five times if typing. Then, with the advent of computers, the new style of block paragraphing appeared. It was easier to hit the return key twice than hit it once and then fiddle about with the space bar, and so people began, instead of indenting, to leave a whole line blank between paragraphs. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s clear, it’s unambiguous, it looks nice on the page, I never had a word to say against it. For reasons of space this new style didn’t catch on in books, newspapers and magazines, but was widely used in offices, for letters, memos, reports and so on.

For a time, then, we had two styles of paragraphing: indented paragraphs for published material, and block paragraphs for correspondence. But this arrangement was not sustainable. Perhaps bewildered at having a choice, or influenced by forms of communication where paragraphing rules are not observed (e-mails, texting), people began to adopt a kind of halfway-house style, in which you went on to the next line, fine, but neither indented nor left a line free.

In the last five years or so, this new style – which is really a lack of one – has become unstoppable. Personally I find it teeth-grittingly annoying – as bad as misplaced apostrophes, or the use of “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate”, or people who say “haitch” instead of “aitch”. Worse. First, it doesn’t look attractive; one can’t tell at a glance how many paragraphs are on a page. It is murky and half-hearted. And it is sometimes genuinely confusing: where a sentence goes nearly but not quite up to the right margin, it’s unclear whether a new paragraph is intended or not. Occasionally, to avoid ambiguity, students leave an empty line in these cases, but persist with the halfway-house paragraphing elsewhere, so then we have something even ghastlier: inconsistent paragraphing.

What I cannot understand is why this fault is not immediately apparent to the perpetrator. It is not as though they ever see their own style of paragraphing in the texts they are given to read at school, college or university. Printed material is either blocked or indented. They are adopting a different style from the models given to them – I assume not intentionally, yet surely it takes some effort of will to depart from the examples placed before them?

Doubtless I will be told that languages change of their own accord, and that when new conventions arise it is idle to protest against them; the task of the grammarian is not to prescribe but describe, many established linguistic conventions were once regarded as errors, etc etc. All true; but for those who care about language, such changes are painful to live through. Moreover, halfway-house paragraphing leads to a lack of clarity, of both presentation and students’ thinking. It is on these grounds that I protest against it. It may be a losing battle, but I feel impelled to fight it.

I call on teachers everywhere to join me in the fight. If your students are having trouble with paragraphing (and they are – I have marked English GCSE papers and I can tell you that it’s a nationwide phenomenon) show them this article. They don’t have to read it. Just look at the paragraphs.

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