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Verbal Energy

Is the paragraph an endangered species?

As humanity’s global attention span seems to shrink relentlessly, what does this mean for this essential unit of prose?

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From England comes word of the paragraph under pressure:

“If the statistics are to be believed, by the end of this sentence, I’ll have lost most of you,” Andy Bodle wrote recently in The Guardian’s “Mind Your Language” column. “Because according to some estimates, the average time spent on a webpage is 15 seconds.”

He presents evidence of shrinking attention spans – such as an Associated Press edict limiting news stories to 500 words and a British government promise never to run a sentence longer than 25 words on its website.

“The most obvious casualty of this economy drive is the venerable paragraph,” he concludes.

I’m not sure I agree.

In school I learned that there were four different types of paragraphs, by which were meant essentially brief essays. I can’t recall the types I learned, but today, the paragraph taxonomists are all over the Web. One school promotes a four-type classification (descriptive, narrative, expository, and persuasive). Another promotes seven types, adding process, compare and contrast, and other variations on the theme. (This isn’t quite like the periodic table, or a list of the known hummingbird species.)

Not long after high school, though, I was plunged into newspaperland, where paragraphs were shorter and – amazing! – often lacked topic sentences. 

Paragraph breaks were made to fit text onto the page and help the reader make sense of it.

A defining moment for me came a few years later when I was an editor in the Monitor’s international news department. The Atex system we used in those days had a function called “define sentence.” It was comparable to the “select” feature one uses today for text to be cut and pasted from one location to another. On the Atex screen, though, defined text would blink like some kind of holiday lighting display. It would have looked alarming had the screen been any other color than the calming green it was.

One day I noticed that a sentence in the story I was editing seemed a tad long. Where indeed does it end? I wondered. I hit the “define sentence” button on my terminal and found my entire screen ablink.

I ended up breaking that sentence up into four separate paragraphs.

Paragraphs, in newspaperland, can be “closed up” – combined with a neighbor to save a line in the column. Or they can be “broken” to fill out space.

Insofar as “paragraphs” are understood to be mini-essays – something students, job applicants, and others must show they can write to prove they can use English as a thinking tool – they are alive and well, just maybe not on news websites.

And insofar as paragraphs, or perhaps better, paragraph breaks, are a tool for presenting text, whether on the page of a book, on the screen of a phone, or in the columns of a newspaper, they are one of many tools for communicating meaning – even to multitaskers with a 15-second attention span.

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