Every paragraph has a structure. It is not just a random collection of sentences. The parts that make up the text are related in meaningful ways to each other.
This main idea of each paragraph is usually expressed somewhere in the paragraph by one sentence (the main or topic sentence – or hyper-Theme in SFL (Martin, 1992, p. 437, Ravelli, 2004)). This sentence is usually found at the beginning of the paragraph, but can come at the end or even in the middle of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph generally expands the theme contained in the main sentence, and each idea round the main theme is supported by information and evidence (in the form of illustrations and examples), and by argument.
The population as a whole was unevenly distributed. The north was particularly thinly settled and the east densely populated, but even in counties like Warwickshire where there were substantial populations, some woodland areas were sparsely peopled. There was already relatively dense settlement in the prime arable areas of the country like Norfolk, Suffolk and Leicestershire. Modern estimates of England’s total population, extrapolated from Domesday patterns, vary between 1 and 3 million.
(Asa Briggs, (1983). A social history of England, p. 58)
Atoms of all elements consist of a central nucleus surrounded by a “cloud” containing one or more electrons. The electrons can be thought of as occupying a series of well-defined shells. The behaviour of a particular element depends largely on the number of electrons in its outermost shells. Other factors, such as the total number of electron shells, also play a part in determining behaviour but it is the dominance of the outer electron configuration that underlies the periodic law and justifies the grouping of the elements into groups or families.
The spoken word (whether conversation or oratory or the coy mixture of the two which is now familiar to us on television) is a very different thing from the written word. What is effective or allowable or desirable in the one may be quite the reverse in the other, and the extempore speaker cannot correct himself by revision as the writer can and should. It is therefore not fair to take a report of a speech or of an oral statement and criticise it as if it were a piece of considered writing.
(Ernest Gowers, (1973) The complete plain words, p. 26)
Identifying topic sentences
Look at the structure of the following paragraph.
This is a period when education faces many disturbing circumstances originating outside itself. Budgets have been drastically cut throughout the country affecting every type of education. Enrolments are dropping rapidly, because the children of the post-World War II “baby boom” have now completed their schooling, and we are feeling the full effect of the falling birth rate. So there are fewer opportunities for new teachers, and the average age of teachers is increasing.
Freedom to learn, p. 11.)
Notice the topic sentence in the following paragraph.
Correlation is a statistical technique that is used to measure and describe a relationship between two variables. Usually the two variables are simply observed as they exist naturally in the environment – there is no attempt to control or manipulate the variables. For example, a researcher interested in the relationship between nutrition and IQ could observe (and record) the dietary patterns for a group of preschool children and then measure IQ scores for the same group. Notice that the researcher is not trying to manipulate the children’s diet or IQ, but is simply observing what occurs naturally. You also should notice that a correlation requires two scores for each individual (one score from each of the two variables). These scores normally are identified as X and Y. The pairs of scores can be listed in a table, or they can be presented graphically in a scatterplot. In the scatterplot, the X values are placed on the horizontal axis of a graph, and the V values are placed on the vertical axis. Each individual is then identified by a single point on the graph so that the coordinates of the point (the X and V values) match the individual’s X score and Y score. The value of the scatterplot is that it allows you to see the nature of the relationship.
(F. J. Gravetter and L. B. Wallnau (1996). Statistics for the behavioral sciences.)