Topic Sentences

Here is another way to think about how a topic sentence can lend order to a paragraph. In the following example, the topic sentence is labeled with a “1.” Sentences that directly support the topic sentence are labeled with a “2.” Sentences that support the level 2 sentences – by providing additional detail – are designated as level “3.” By breaking the paragraph down in this manner, the relationships between the sentences – and the ideas they convey – become obvious. Using this technique to examine your own paragraphs can help you determine whether or not they are well-organized and adequately developed.

The weeks until graduation were filled with heady activities. A group of small children were to be presented in a play about buttercups and daisies and bunny rabbits. They could be heard throughout the building practicing their hops and their little songs that sounded like silver bells. The older girls (non-graduates, of course) were assigned the task of making refreshments for the night's festivities. A tangy scent of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate wafted around the home economics building as the budding cooks made samples for themselves and their teachers. (From Graduation, by Maya Angelou)

Using Topic Sentences

Most paragraphs have a topic sentence that states the main point of the paragraph. Exceptions include introductory paragraphs, transitional paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs. Note also that some paragraphs are so well-structured that a reader can readily identify the topic—in other words, the topic sentence is implied rather than stated. This last technique is hard to master, so as a rule you should use a topic sentence.

Additional Examples

(Examples are from Diana Hacker. The Bedford Handbook. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.)

Sample Paragraph, Topic Sentence first:

Nearly all living creatures manage some form of communication. The dance patterns of bees in their hive help to point the way to distant flower fields or announce successful foraging. Male stickleback fish regularly swim upside-down to indicate outrage in a courtship contest. Male deer and lemurs mark territorial ownership by rubbing their own body secretions on boundary stones or trees. Everyone has seen a frightened dog put his tail between his legs and run in panic. We, too, use gestures, expressions, postures, and movement to give our words point. [Italics added by Hacker.]

-Olivia Vlahos, Human Beginning (qtd. in Hacker 78).

Topic sentence introduced by transitional sentence linking it to earlier material:

But flowers are not the only source of spectacle in the wilderness. An opportunity for late color is provided by the berries of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. Baneberry presents its tiny white flowers in spring but in late summer bursts forth with clusters of red berries. Bunchberry, a ground-cover plant, puts out red berries in the fall, and the red berries of wintergreen last from autumn well into winter. In California, the bright red, fist-sized clusters of Christmas berries can be seen growing beside highways for up to six months of the year. [Italics added by Hacker.]

-James Crockett et al., Wildflower Gardening (qtd. in Hacker 79)

Topic Sentence Last:

Tobacco chewing starts as soon as people begin stirring. Those who have fresh supplies soak the new leaves in water and add ashes from the hearth to the wad. Men, women, and children chew tobacco and all are addicted to it. Once there was a shortage of tobacco in Kaobawa's village and I was plagued for a week by early morning visitors who requested permission to collect my cigarette butts in order to make a wad of chewing tobacco. Normally, if anyone is short of tobacco, he can request a share of someone else's already chewed wad, or simply borrow the entire wad when its owner puts it down somewhere. Tobacco is so important to them that their word for “poverty” translates as “being without tobacco.” [Italics added by Hacker.]

-Napolean A. Chagnon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (qtd. in Hacker 79)