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A paragraph (from the Greek paragraphos, "to write beside" or "written beside") is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea. A paragraph consists of one or more sentences. Though not required by the syntax of any language, paragraphs are usually an expected part of formal writing, used to organize longer prose.
The oldest classical Greek and Latin writing had little or no spaces between words or other ones, and could be written in boustrophedon (alternating directions). Over time, text direction (left to right) became standardized, and word dividers and terminal punctuation became common. The first way to divide sentences into groups was the original paragraphos, similar to an underscore at the beginning of the new group. The Greek paragraphos evolved into the pilcrow (¶), which in English manuscripts in the Middle Ages can be seen inserted inline between sentences. The hedera leaf (e.g. ☙) has also been used in the same way.
In ancient manuscripts, another means to divide sentences in into paragraphs was a line break (newline) followed by an initial at the beginning of the next paragraph. An initial is an oversize capital letter, sometimes outdented beyond the margin of text. This style can be seen, for example, in the original Old English manuscript of Beowulf. Outdenting is still used in English typography, though not commonly. Modern English typography usually indicates a new paragraph by indenting the first line. This style can be seen in the (handwritten) United States Constitution from 1787. For additional ornamentation, a hedera leaf or other symbol can be added to the inter-paragraph whitespace, or put in the indentation space.
A second common modern English style is to use no indenting, but add vertical whitespace to create "block paragraphs". On a typewriter, a double carriage return produces a blank line for this purpose; professional typesetters may put in an arbitrary vertical space by adjusting leading. This style is very common in electronic formats, such as on the World Wide Web and email.
Widows and orphans occur when the first line of a paragraph is the last line in a column or page, or when the last line of a paragraph is the first line of a new column or page.
Professionally printed material in English typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow. For example, Robert Bringhurst states that we should "Set opening paragraphs flush left." Bringhurst explains as follows.
"The function of a paragraph is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted."
The Elements of Typographic Style states that "at least one en [space]" should be used to indent paragraphs after the first, noting that that is the "practical minimum". An em space is the most commonly used paragraph indent. Miles Tinker, in his book Legibility of Print, concluded that indenting the first line of paragraphs increases readability by 7%, on the average.
In word processing and desktop publishing, a hard return or paragraph break indicates a new paragraph, to be distinguished from the soft return at the end of a line internal to a paragraph. This distinction allows word wrap to automatically re-flow text as it is edited, without losing paragraph breaks. The software may apply vertical whitespace or indenting at paragraph breaks, depending on the selected style.
How such documented are actually stored depends on the file format. For example, HTML uses the <p> tag as a paragraph container. In plaintext files, there are two common formats. Pre-formatted text will have a newline at the end of every physical line, and two newlines at the end of a paragraph, creating a blank line. An alternative is to only put newlines at the end of each paragraph, and leave word wrapping up to the application that displays or processes the text (if it is even necessary).
Many published books use a device to separate certain paragraphs further when there is a change of scene or time. This extra space, especially when co-occurring at a page or section break, may contain an asterisk, three asterisks, a special stylistic dingbat, or a special symbol known as an asterism.
A common English usage misconception is that a paragraph has three to five sentences; single-word paragraphs can be seen in some professional writing, and journalists often use single-sentence paragraphs.
The crafting of clear, coherent paragraphs is the subject of considerable stylistic debate. Forms generally vary among types of writing. For example, newspapers, scientific journals, and fictional essays have somewhat different conventions for the placement of paragraph breaks.
English students are sometimes taught that a paragraph should have a topic sentence or "main idea", preferably first, and multiple "supporting" or "detail" sentences which explain or supply evidence. One technique of this type, intended for essay writing, is known as the Schaffer paragraph. For example, the following excerpt from Dr. Samuel Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, the first sentence is the main idea: that Joseph Addison is a skilled "describer of life and manners". The succeeding sentences are details that support and explain the main idea in a specific way.
As a describer of life and manners, he must be allowed to stand perhaps the first of the first rank. His humour, which, as Steele observes, is peculiar to himself, is so happily diffused as to give the grace of novelty to domestic scenes and daily occurrences. He never "o'ersteps the modesty of nature," nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth. His figures neither divert by distortion nor amaze by aggravation. He copies life with so much fidelity that he can be hardly said to invent; yet his exhibitions have an air so much original, that it is difficult to suppose them not merely the product of imagination.
This advice differs from stock advice for the construction of paragraphs in Japanese (translated as danraku 段落).