Paragraph Coherence

Shifts in Focus

Digressions and deviations in paragraph-writing often come in the form of irrelevant details or shifts in focus.

The sentences below comprise a deconstructed paragraph, with each sentence assigned a number:

  1. It is a fact that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.
  2. Statistics show that in states with capital punishment, murder rates are the same or almost the same as in states without capital punishment.
  3. It is also true that it is more expensive to put a person on death row than in life imprisonment because of the costs of maximum security.
  4. Unfortunately, capital punishment has been used unjustly.
  5. Statistics show that every execution is of a man and that nine out of ten are black.
  6. So prejudice shows right through.

 

Once again, no sentence in this paragraph is completely irrelevant to the general topic (capital punishment), but the specific focus of this paragraph shifts abruptly twice:

  • The paragraph starts out with a clear claim in sentence 1: It is a fact that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.
  • Sentence 2 provides evidence in support of the initial claim: Statistics show that in states with capital punishment, murder rates are the same or almost the same as in states without capital punishment.
  • Sentence 3, however, shifts the focus from capital punishment as a deterrent to crime to the cost of incarceration: It is also true that it is more expensive to put a person on death row than in life imprisonment because of the costs of maximum security.
  • Sentence 4 once again shifts the focus, this time to issues of justice: Unfortunately, capital punishment has been used unjustly.
  • Sentences 5 and 6, Statistics show that every execution is of a man and that nine out of ten are black and So prejudice shows right through, follow from 4 if one believes that executing men and blacks is in fact evidence of injustice and prejudice. More importantly, however, we are now a long way off from the original claim, that capital punishment does not deter crime. The focus has shifted from deterrence to expense to fairness.

The following paragraph on the same topic is much more effectively focused and unified:

  1. The punishment of criminals has always been a problem for society.
  2. Citizens have had to decide whether offenders such as first-degree murderers should be killed in a gas chamber, imprisoned for life, or rehabilitated and given a second chance in society.
  3. Many citizens argue that serious criminals should be executed.
  4. They believe that killing criminals will set an example for others and also rid society of a cumbersome burden.
  5. Other citizens say that no one has the right to take a life and that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.
  6. They believe that society as well as the criminal is responsible for the crimes and that killing the criminal does not solve the problems of either society or the criminal.

 

  • Sentence 1 puts forth the main claim: The punishment of criminals has always been a problem for society.
  • Sentence 2 specifies the exact nature of the problem by listing society’s choices: Citizens have had to decide whether offenders such as first-degree murderers should be killed in a gas chamber, imprisoned for life, or rehabilitated and given a second chance in society.
  • Sentence 3 further develops the topic by stating one point of view: Many citizens argue that serious criminals should be executed.
  • The reasons for the point of view in sentence 3 are then provided in sentence 4: They believe that killing criminals will set an example for others and also rid society of a cumbersome burden. 
  • Sentence 5 states an opposing point of view: Other citizens say that no one has the right to take a life and that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime. 
  • Sentence 6 states the reason for the opposing point of view: They believe that society as well as the criminal is responsible for the crimes and that killing the criminal does not solve the problems of either society or the criminal.

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Tense Consistency

It is crucial that verb tenses stay consistent throughout an essay. Unless you have a good reason to change from one tense to another, stick to one verb tense. Unnecessary tense shifts can be very confusing for your readers. Consider the examples below (verbs are bolded).

Example 1 (tenses are inconsistent):*

With any marine mammal exhibit, the needs of the visiting public came before the needs of the animals. Enclosures are designed to make the animals readily visible, not necessarily comfortable. Interactive programs such as swim-with-the-dolphins encounters and so-called petting pools did not always allow the animals to choose the levels of interaction and rest they prefer. This could elicit submissive behavior toward humans, which can affect the dominance structure within the dolphins’ own social groups. Furthermore, petting pool dolphins, who were fed continuously by the visiting public, can become obese and are at risk of ingesting foreign objects.The display industry fostered a benign—albeit mythical— reputation of marine mammals, particularly dolphins. This constitutes a form of miseducation. These species were—for the most part—carnivores with complex social hierarchies and are perfectly capable of injuring fellow group members, other marine mammals, and humans. The risk of disease transmission in both directions (marine mammal to human and human to marine mammal) is also very real.

 

Example 2 (tenses are consistent):*

With any marine mammal exhibit, the needs of the visiting public come before the needs of the animals. Enclosures are designed to make the animals readily visible, not necessarily comfortable. Interactive programs such as swim-with-the-dolphins encounters and so-called petting pools do not always allow the animals to choose the levels of interaction and rest they prefer. This can elicit submissive behavior toward humans, which can affect the dominance structure within the dolphins’ own social groups. Furthermore, petting pool dolphins, who are fed continuously by the visiting public, can become obese and are at risk of ingesting foreign objects.The display industry fosters a benign—albeit mythical— reputation of marine mammals, particularly dolphins. This constitutes a form of miseducation. These species are—for the most part—carnivores with complex social hierarchies and are perfectly capable of injuring fellow group members, other marine mammals, and humans. The risk of disease transmission in both directions (marine mammal to human and human to marine mammal) is also very real.

 

In example 1, the text is hard to follow as the verb tenses keep changing from past to present and vice-versa. In example 2, the tenses are consistent, which makes it easy for the reader to follow the argument presented. Tense inconsistency is distracting, and it prevents the reader from focusing on the content.

* Examples adapted from “The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity” by Naomi A. Rose, PhD, and Richard Farinato for The Humane Society of the United States, 2006.

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Pronoun Consistency

Like tense inconsistency, pronoun inconsistency can also distract readers from the content of your paper. Make sure you maintain your point of view (stick to one pronoun throughout the essay), and your arguments will be easy to follow. Consider the following examples.

Example 1 (pronouns are inconsistent):

In order to lead a healthy life, it is important to exercise. You feel a lot better mentally after a couple of hours of daily exercise. Not only does exercising make us feel less stressed, it can help you feel more confident. When you start to see the result of your efforts, you look in the mirror and feel good about yourself. Exercising makes us feel better mentally.
In addition to helping you feel better mentally, exercising also makes us healthier and stronger. Through regular exercise, all your muscles, including the ones in your heart, will be stronger. Your cardiovascular endurance will increase, which means that you will be able to run without struggling to catch your breath. Furthermore, exercising makes our bodies more resilient and able to fight diseases more easily. Exercising is physically beneficial.

 

Example 2 (pronouns are consistent):

In order to lead a healthy life, it is important to exercise. You feel a lot better mentally after a couple of hours of daily exercise. Not only does exercising make one feel less stressed, it can help you feel more confident. When you start to see the result of your efforts, you look in the mirror and feel good about yourself. Exercising makes you feel better mentally.In addition to helping you feel better mentally, exercising also makes you healthier and stronger. Through regular exercise, all your muscles, including the ones in your heart, will be stronger. Your cardiovascular endurance will increase, which means that you will be able to run without struggling to catch your breath. Furthermore, exercising makes your body more resilient and able to fight diseases more easily. Exercising is physically beneficial.

 

Example 3 (pronouns are consistent and in the third person):

In order to lead a healthy life, it is important to exercise. People feel a lot better mentally after a couple of hours of daily exercise. Not only does exercising make one feel less stressed, it can also boost confidence. When starting to see results, one will look in the mirror and feel good. Exercising improves mental health.In addition to improving mental health, exercising also makes people healthier and stronger. Through regular exercise, all the muscles, including the ones in the heart, will be stronger. Cardiovascular endurance will increase, which will help one be able to run without struggling to breathe. Furthermore, exercising makes one’s body more resilient and able to fight diseases more easily. Exercising is thus physically beneficial.

 

In example 1, the constant switch from pronouns in the second person (you/yourself/your) to the first person (us/our) can disrupt the reader’s concentration. It is much easier to follow the arguments in example 2 where all the pronouns are in the second person. However, when it comes to academic writing, the third person (used in example 3) is the best choice as it is more formal and objective. Also, whenever possible, structure the sentence in a way that does not require a pronoun. (Instead of saying “…exercising can help you feel more confident,” use a clause like “…exercising can also boost confidence”). In example 3, there are fewer pronouns, and they are all in the same person, making it the best version of the text for academic purposes.

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Transitions Between Ideas

The most convincing ideas in the world, expressed in the most beautiful sentences, will move no one unless those ideas are properly connected. Unless readers can move easily from one thought to another, they will surely find something else to read or turn on the television.

Providing transitions between ideas is largely a matter of attitude. You must never assume that your readers know what you know. In fact, it’s a good idea to assume not only that your readers need all the information that you have and need to know how you arrived at the point you’re at, but also that they are not quite as quick as you are. You might be able to leap from one side of the stream to the other; believe that your readers need some stepping stones and be sure to place them in readily accessible and visible spots.

There are some basic mechanical considerations in providing transitions between ideas, such as using transitional expressions and repeating key words and phrases. Consider the examples below.

  • Example 1: Also (transitional word), pets can provide comfort and joy to the elderly.
  • Example 2: In addition to enriching students’ vocabulary (transitional clause), reading helps students improve their grammar skills.

In example 1, the transition could be at the beginning of a paragraph, to introduce a new idea, or it could in the middle of a paragraph,to introduce a detail that supports the topic sentence. The topic sentence announces what the writer is trying to prove or explain in a given paragraph.

In example 2, the transition would be at the beginning of a new paragraph. It refers back to the point made in the previous paragraph and introduces what the new paragraph is about. Not only does it include a transition, it is also a topic sentence.

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Exercises

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