Topic Sentence (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Nordquist, Richard. "Topic Sentence (Composition)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, July 28). Topic Sentence (Composition). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551 Nordquist, Richard. "Topic Sentence (Composition)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551 (accessed September 23, 2017).
Girl in train observation car
"What is the appeal of train travel? Ask almost any foamer, and he or she will invariably answer, 'The romance of it!' But just what this means, they cannot really say. It's tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. . . ." (Kevin Baker, "21st Century Limited: The Lost Glory of America's Railroads." Harper's, July 2014). PhotoTalk/Getty Images

A topic sentence is a sentence, sometimes at the beginning of a paragraph, that states or suggests the main idea (or topic) of a paragraph.

Not all paragraphs begin with topic sentences. In some, the topic sentence appears in the middle or at the end. In others, the topic sentence is implied or absent altogether.

Examples and Observations

  • "Salva and the other boys made cows out of clay. The more cows you made, the richer you were. But they had to be fine, healthy animals. It took time to make a lump of clay look like a good cow. The boys would challenge each other to see who could make the most and best cows."
    (Linda Sue Park, A Long Walk to Water. Clarion, 2010)
  • "Momma bought two bolts of cloth each year for winter and summer clothes. She made my school dresses, underslips, bloomers, handkerchiefs, Bailey's shirts, shorts, her aprons, house dresses and waists from the rolls shipped to Stamps by Sears and Roebuck. . . ."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk."
    (George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London. Victor Gollancz, 1933)
  • "The flavor that salt imparts to food is just one of the attributes that manufacturers rely on. For them, salt is nothing less than a miracle worker in processed foods. It makes sugar taste sweeter. It adds crunch to crackers and frozen waffles. It delays spoilage so that the products can sit longer on the shelf. And, just as importantly, it masks the otherwise bitter or dull taste that hounds so many processed foods before salt is added."
    (Michael Moss, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Random House, 2013)
  • "The very idea of retirement is a relatively new invention. For most of human history, people worked until they died or were too infirm to lift a finger (at which point they died pretty fast anyway). It was the German statesman Otto von Bismarck who first floated the concept, in 1883, when he proposed that his unemployed countrymen over the age of 65 be given a pension. This move was designed to fend off Marxist agitation—and to do so on the cheap, since few Germans survived to that ripe old age."
    (Jessica Bruder, "The End of Retirement." Harper's, August 2014)
  • "Grandma's room I regarded as a dark den of primitive rites and practices. On Friday evenings whoever was home gathered at her door while she lit her Sabbath candles. . . ."
    (E.L. Doctorow, World's Fair. Random House, 1985)
  • "Genealogy is an ancient human preoccupation. The God of Hebrew Scripture promised Abraham descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. The apostles Matthew and Luke claim that Abraham's lineage went on to include King David and eventually Jesus, though the specifics of their accounts are contradictory. Muslims trace Mohammed's line back through Abraham, to Adam and Eve."
    (Maud Newton, "America's Ancestry Craze." Harper's, June 2014)
  • "Once, in a restaurant in Italy with my family, I occasioned enormous merriment, as a nineteenth-century humorist would have put it, by confusing two Italian words. I thought I had, very suavely, ordered for dessert fragoline—those lovely little wild strawberries. Instead, I seem to have asked for fagiolini—green beans. The waiter ceremoniously brought me a plate of green beans with my coffee, along with the flan and the gelato for the kids. The significant insight the mistake provided—arriving mere microseconds after the laughter of those kids, who for some reason still bring up the occasion, often—was about the arbitrary nature of language: the single 'r' rolled right makes one a master of the trattoria, an 'r' unrolled the family fool. . . ."
    (Adam Gopnik, "Word Magic." The New Yorker, May 26, 2014)
  • "In seventeenth-century Europe, the transformation of man into soldier took on a new form, more concerted and disciplined, and far less pleasant, than wine. New recruits and even seasoned veterans were endlessly drilled, hour after hour, until each man began to feel himself part of a single, giant fighting machine. . . ."
    (Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. Henry Holt and Company, 1997)
  • "What is the appeal of train travel? Ask almost any foamer, and he or she will invariably answer, 'The romance of it!' But just what this means, they cannot really say. It's tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. . . ."
    (Kevin Baker, "21st Century Limited: The Lost Glory of America's Railroads." Harper's, July 2014)
  • "Because science fiction spans the spectrum from the plausible to the fanciful, its relationship with science has been both nurturing and contentious. For every author who meticulously examines the latest developments in physics or computing, there are other authors who invent 'impossible' technology to serve as a plot device (like Le Guin’s faster-than-light communicator, the ansible) or to enable social commentary, the way H. G. Wells uses his time machine to take the reader to the far future to witness the calamitous destiny of the human race."
    (Eileen Gunn, "Brave New Words." Smithsonian, May 2014)
  • "I passed all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. . . ."
    (James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times. Harper & Row, 1933)
  • "What is there about this wonderful woman? From next door she comes striding, down the lawn, beneath the clothesline, laden with cookies she has just baked, or with baby togs she no longer needs, and one's heart goes out. Pops out. The clothesline, the rusted swing set, the limbs of the dying elm, the lilacs past bloom are lit up like rods of neon by her casual washday energy and cheer, a cheer one has done nothing to infuse."
    (John Updike, "One's Neighbor's Wife." Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. Knopf, 1983)
  • "Television. Why do I watch it? The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. . . ."
    (J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron. Random House, 1990)
  • "Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America, whether by train or by car, has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travelers remember the event. It seems just another fair-sized town in the middle--almost the exact middle--of the continental United States. . . ."
    (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. Random House, 1966)
  • "Rodeo, like baseball, is an American sport and has been around almost as long. . . ."
    (Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces. Viking Penguin, 1985)
  • "What a piece of work is a book! I am not talking about writing or printing. I am talking about the codex we may leaf through, that may be put away on a shelf for whole centuries and will remain there, unchanged and handy. . . ."
    (William Golding, A Moving Target. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982)

Characteristics of an Effective Topic Sentence

  • "A good topic sentence is concise and emphatic. It is no longer than the idea requires, and it stresses the important word or phrase. Here, for instance, is the topic sentence which opens a paragraph about the collapse of the stock market in 1929:
    The Bull Market was dead.
    (Frederick Lewis Allen)
    Notice several things. (1) Allen's sentence is brief. Not all topics can be explained in six words, but whether they take six or sixty, they should be phrased in no more words than are absolutely necessary. (2) The sentence is clear and strong: you understand exactly what Allen means. (3) It places the key word—'dead'—at the end, where it gets heavy stress and leads naturally into what will follow. . . . (4) The sentence stands first in the paragraph. This is where topic sentences generally belong: at or near the beginning."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988)

Positioning a Topic Sentence

  • "If you want readers to see your point immediately, open with the topic sentence. This strategy can be particularly useful in letters of application or in argumentative writing. . . .

    "When specific details lead up to a generalization, putting the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph makes sense. . . .

    "Occasionally a paragraph's main idea is so obvious that it does not need to be stated explicitly in a topic sentence."
    (Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)
  • Guidelines for Composing Topic Sentences
    "The topic sentence is the most important sentence in your paragraph. Carefully worded and restricted, it helps you generate and control your information. An effective topic sentence also helps readers grasp your main idea quickly. As you draft your paragraphs, pay close attention to the following three guidelines:

    1. Make sure you provide a topic sentence. . . .
    2. Put your topic sentence first.
    3. Be sure your topic sentence is focused. If restricted, a topic sentence discusses only one central idea. A broad or unrestricted topic sentence leads to a shaky, incomplete paragraph for two reasons:
    - The paragraph will not contain enough information to support the topic sentence.
    - A broad topic sentence will not summarize or forecast specific information in the paragraph."
    (Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)

Testing for Topic Sentences

 

  • "When testing your article for topic sentences, you should be able to look at each paragraph and say what the topic sentence is. Having said it, look at all the other sentences in the paragraph and test them to make sure they support it. . . .
  • "If you find that you have come up with the same topic sentence more than once, you have two paragraphs doing the same work. Cut one of them out.
  • "If you find a paragraph that has several sentences that don't support the topic sentence, see if all the outlaw sentences support some other topic sentence and turn the one paragraph into two."
  • (Gary Provost, "How to Test Your Articles for the 8 Essentials of Nonfiction." Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean M. Fredette. Writer's Digest Books, 1988)

Frequency of Topic Sentences

  • "Teachers and textbook writers should exercise caution in making statements about the frequency with which contemporary professional writers use simple or even explicit topic sentences in expository paragraphs. It is abundantly clear that students should not be told that professional writers usually begin their paragraphs with topic sentences."
  • (Richard Braddock, "The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose." Research in the Teaching of English. Winter 1974)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Topic Sentence (Composition)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, July 28). Topic Sentence (Composition). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551 Nordquist, Richard. "Topic Sentence (Composition)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/topic-sentence-composition-1692551 (accessed September 23, 2017).