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topic sentence

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topic sentence

Morton A. Miller, Reading and Writing Short Essays (Random House, 1980)

Definition:

A sentence, sometimes at the beginning of a paragraph, that states or suggests the main idea (or topic) of a passage.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Grandma's room I regarded as a dark den of primitive rites and practices. On Friday evenings whoever was home gathered at her door while she lit her Sabbath candles. . . ."
    (E.L. Doctorow, World's Fair. Random House, 1985)


  • "In seventeenth-century Europe, the transformation of man into soldier took on a new form, more concerted and disciplined, and far less pleasant, than wine. New recruits and even seasoned veterans were endlessly drilled, hour after hour, until each man began to feel himself part of a single, giant fighting machine. . . ."
    (Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. Henry Holt and Company, 1997)


  • "I passed all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. . . ."
    (James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times. Harper & Row, 1933)


  • "What is there about this wonderful woman? From next door she comes striding, down the lawn, beneath the clothesline, laden with cookies she has just baked, or with baby togs she no longer needs, and one's heart goes out. Pops out. The clothesline, the rusted swing set, the limbs of the dying elm, the lilacs past bloom are lit up like rods of neon by her casual washday energy and cheer, a cheer one has done nothing to infuse."
    (John Updike, "One's Neighbor's Wife." Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. Knopf, 1983)


  • "Television. Why do I watch it? The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. . . ."
    (J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron. Random House, 1990)


  • "Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America, whether by train or by car, has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travelers remember the event. It seems just another fair-sized town in the middle--almost the exact middle--of the continental United States. . . ."
    (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. Random House, 1966)


  • "Rodeo, like baseball, is an American sport and has been around almost as long. . . ."
    (Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces. Viking Penguin, 1985)


  • "What a piece of work is a book! I am not talking about writing or printing. I am talking about the codex we may leaf through, that may be put away on a shelf for whole centuries and will remain there, unchanged and handy. . . ."
    (William Golding, A Moving Target. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982)


  • "Teachers and textbook writers should exercise caution in making statements about the frequency with which contemporary professional writers use simple or even explicit topic sentences in expository paragraphs. It is abundantly clear that students should not be told that professional writers usually begin their paragraphs with topic sentences."
    (Richard Braddock, "The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose." Research in the Teaching of English. Winter 1974)


  • Characteristics of an Effective Topic Sentence
    "A good topic sentence is concise and emphatic. It is no longer than the idea requires, and it stresses the important word or phrase. Here, for instance, is the topic sentence which opens a paragraph about the collapse of the stock market in 1929:
    The Bull Market was dead.
    (Frederick Lewis Allen)
    Notice several things. (1) Allen's sentence is brief. Not all topics can be explained in six words, but whether they take six or sixty, they should be phrased in no more words than are absolutely necessary. (2) The sentence is clear and strong: you understand exactly what Allen means. (3) It places the key word--'dead'--at the end, where it gets heavy stress and leads naturally into what will follow. . . . (4) The sentence stands first in the paragraph. This is where topic sentences generally belong: at or near the beginning."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988)


  • Positioning a Topic Sentence
    "If you want readers to see your point immediately, open with the topic sentence. This strategy can be particularly useful in letters of application or in argumentative writing. . . .

    "When specific details lead up to a generalization, putting the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph makes sense. . . .

    "Occasionally a paragraph's main idea is so obvious that it does not need to be stated explicitly in a topic sentence."
    (Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)


  • Guidelines for Composing Topic Sentences
    "The topic sentence is the most important sentence in your paragraph. Carefully worded and restricted, it helps you generate and control your information. An effective topic sentence also helps readers grasp your main idea quickly. As you draft your paragraphs, pay close attention to the following three guidelines:

    1. Make sure you provide a topic sentence. . . .
    2. Put your topic sentence first. . . .
    3. Be sure your topic sentence is focused. If restricted, a topic sentence discusses only one central idea. A broad or unrestricted topic sentence leads to a shaky, incomplete paragraph for two reasons:
    • The paragraph will not contain enough information to support the topic sentence.
    • A broad topic sentence will not summarize or forecast specific information in the paragraph."
    (Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)
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