unity (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

stamp - unity
Humorist Josh Billings on the value of unity. (vip2014/Getty Images)


In composition, unity is the quality of oneness in a paragraph or essay that results when all the words and sentences contribute to a single effect or main idea. Also called wholeness.

For the past two centuries, composition handbooks have insisted that unity is an essential characteristic of an effective text. Professor Andy Crockett points out that the "five-paragraph theme and current-traditional rhetoric's emphasis on method reflect further the expedience and utility of unity." However, Crockett also notes that "for rhetoricians, the achievement of unity has never been taken for granted" (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, 1996).


For advice on achieving unity in a composition (along with some opposing views on the value of unity), see the observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "one"


  • "[T]he essential quality of a paragraph should be unity. A paragraph is supposed to have a central idea, and everything in the paragraph relates to and develops that idea. The reader finds no surprises, and every sentence fits with the others. Moreover, the sentences follow each other in logical order so that one could not move the sentences around at random: each one needs to be in its particular place to advance the internal development of the paragraph."
    (Maxine Hairston, Successful Writing. Norton, 1992)

  • "Most pieces of effective writing are unified around one main point. That is, all the subpoints and supporting details are relevant to that point. Generally, after you have read an essay, you can sum up the writer's main point in a sentence, even if the author has not stated it explicitly. We call this summary statement a thesis."
    (X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Marcia F. Muth, The Bedford Guide for College Writers, 8th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)
  • Unity and Coherence
    "A good check on unity is to ask yourself if everything in your paragraph or essay is subordinate to and derived from the controlling idea. Make sure that your controlling idea--the topic sentence or thesis--indicates the subject and the focus on that subject. . . .

    "Do not confuse unity and coherence. Coherence involves the clear movement of thought from sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph; unity means staying on the topic by staying within the focus."
    (Lee Brandon and Kelly Brandon, Paragraphs and Essays With Integrated Readings, 12th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • Rules of Thumb for Writing Unified Paragraphs
    • Be sure your paragraphs focus on one idea and state that idea in a topic sentence.
    • Place your topic sentence effectively within your paragraph. Let the purpose of your paragraph and the nature of your evidence guide you.
    • Let your paragraph's evidence--the selected details, the examples--illustrate or clarify the idea expressed in your topic sentence.
    • Make sure you explain the relationship between your evidence and your idea so that it is clear to readers.
    • Think about unity among paragraphs when writing essays. Be sure your paragraphs are related, that they fit together and clarify your essay's idea.
    (R. DiYanni, Scribner Handbook for Writers. Allyn & Bacon, 2001)
  • A Note on Topic Sentences
    "Paragraphs may not have a topic sentence, but they must have unity and purpose. All the ideas in a paragraph should relate to a clear point readers will easily understand."
    (Mark Connelly, Get Writing: Paragraphs and Essays. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009)
  • Counterviews on Unity
    - "Unity is the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition. . . . Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity. Inexpert or bad writing most terribly so. But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness."
    (William Carlos Williams, "An Essay on Virginia," 1925)

    - "It is this obsession with unity . . . that kills vibrancy in student writing."
    (Charles Paine, The Resistant Writer: Rhetoric as Immunity, 1850 to the Present. SUNY Press, 1999)
  • Adams Sherman Hill on Unity (1895)
    "The unity which every young writer should seek is not the unity of perfection, but the unity which comes from the conception of a discourse as a whole, and from the harmonious arrangement of the parts in conformity with that conception. Every composition that he writes should be 'a body, not a mere collection of members' [Quintilian]--a living body. Its life must come partly from the writer's natural qualities, and partly from his acquired resources whether of matter or of language. Familiarity with good authors will stimulate his powers of expression, and constant practice under judicious criticism will train them.

    "Whatever a writer's materials, whatever his gifts, he must, if he hopes to be read, awaken interest at the beginning and hold it to the end. Unless he succeeds in doing this, his work, whatever its merits in other respects, fails--as a picture fails which nobody cares to look at, or a sonata which nobody cares to hear. A student of composition can receive no higher praise from his teacher than this: 'I enjoyed reading your essay.'"
    (Adams Sherman Hill, The Principles of Rhetoric, rev. edition. American Book Company, 1895)

    Pronunciation: YOO-ni-tee