Paragraph Break

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

pilcrow for a paragraph break
The paragraph sign (or pilcrow) is a typographical symbol used to indicate the start of a paragraph.

A paragraph break is a single line space or an indentation (or both) marking the division between one paragraph and the next in a body of text. Also known as a par break.

Paragraph breaks conventionally serve to signal the transition from one idea to another in a stretch of text, and from one speaker to another in an exchange of dialogue.

By the 17th century, the indented paragraph had become the standard paragraph break in western prose.

As Noah Lukeman observes in A Dash of Style (2006), the paragraph break is "one of the most crucial marks in the punctuation world."

Examples and Observations

  • "The baby is involved with this text making, sharing a lot of it asleep in a carry cot on the floor behind me. She gradually swims up to the top end and gets stuck with her head in a corner, at which point her grunts and gurgles change tone, I get up and lift her back to the bottom, and she starts the journey again. Sometimes the grunts turn to grousing, a familiar aroma steals across the room, and it is time for a paragraph break.
  • "I mostly do the midnight feed, which gives Pam the chance of a solid sleep and me an excuse to be up late. I like writing at midnight. With the house still, and no lights on but the desk lamp (bad for the eyes), I seem to be in the middle of a vast dark space stretching out in all directions to the stars and nebulae. The only things sounding in it are the words I write and the grunted comments of the next generation."
    (R.W. Connell, "The Materiality of Theory." Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, ed. by Judith Kegan Gardiner. Columbia University Press, 2002)

    "A Kindness to Your Reader"

    • "Paragraphing is a kindness to your reader, since it divides your thinking into manageable bites. If you find a paragraph growing longer than half a page--particularly if it is your opening or second paragraph--find a place to make a paragraph break. More frequent paragraphing provides readers with convenient resting points from which to relaunch themselves into your thinking. 
    • "A short paragraph will always provide emphasis, for which most readers will thank you. (You should, however, use very short paragraphs sparingly.)" (David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, Writing Analytically, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)

    The Paragraph Break as a Mark of Punctuation

    • "Few people would think of the paragraph break as a punctuation mark, but it certainly is. In ancient times there were no paragraphs--sentences simply flowed into one another without interruption--but over time text became segmented into paragraphs, first indicated by the letter 'C.' During medieval times this mark evolved into the paragraph symbol [¶] (called a pilcrow or a paraph) and this eventually evolved into the modern-day paragraph break, which is, of course, indicated by only a line break and indentation. The indentation we use today was originally there for early printers, so that they would have space for the large illuminated letters that used to herald paragraphs. The illuminated letter no longer exists, but, luckily for tired readers, the spacing does.
    • "Today the paragraph break is indicated only by its absence, which is perhaps why it is glossed over in discussions about punctuation. This is a shame, because it is one of the most crucial marks in the punctuation world." (Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. W.W. Norton, 2006)
    • "The pilcrow was once used with great abandon, elaborately drawn in bright red ink by specialized rubricators. A manuscript would be left with wide blank spaces in which the rubricators would later draw the pilcrows. Eventually, paragraphs were started on new lines, with an indentation left for the pilcrow. When a rubricator ran out of time, the indentation was left blank, and eventually this became standard practice--the new line and the indentation taking the place of the fiddly pilcrow. Today, the pilcrow’s primary uses are in proofreading as an indication that a paragraph should be inserted, in legal texts, when citing a specific paragraph, and in academic writing, when citing from an HTML page." (Liz Stinson, "The Secret History of the Hashtag, Slash, and Interrobang." Wired, October 21, 2015)

      Paragraph Breaks in Professional Documents

      • "Just look at a page of typescript that is unrelieved by paragraph breaks: it immediately seems to be indigestible and stuffy. Compare that with a page broken up by lively headings which straightaway appears more interesting and inviting.
      • "Paragraphs allow the writer to change tack or subject and, equally important, give the eye a rest. When the text moves from one point to another that is the time for a par break. However, much will depend on the style of the publication or document and on the column width. For news-style print jobs, using double or multi-column format, paragraph breaks are usually needed after every second or third sentence--say about every 50 to 70 words. . . . For single-column reports, books, manuals, leaflets and brochures, it is usually better to have slightly longer paragraphs with perhaps four or five sentences." (John Foster, Writing Skills for Public Relations: Style and Technique for Mainstream and Social Media, 5th ed. Kogan Page, 2012)

      Paragraph Breaks in Emails

      • "In e-mail communication, paragraph breaks are even more important. They should be more frequent. A rule of thumb I use is three to eight lines as the maximum paragraph length for e-mails. It is also a good idea to separate paragraphs with a blank line to add delineation." (Robert T. Whipple, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Productivity Publications, 2006)

      Paragraph Breaks and Consistency

      • "The paragraph break is the ultimate balancer. It blocks off a certain size of text, and in doing so wields great power over consistency. . . . One should not have paragraph lengths varying wildly throughout a text. The experience will be too jarring on readers, and they won't be able to settle in. Which brings us to breaking with consistency. Once you've offered a general consistency, you can--and should--break the rules, varying paragraph length when the content calls for it. If your work is filled with seven-sentence paragraphs and a one-line paragraph appears, it will hit the reader like a punch; the content in that one-line paragraph will be thrust into the limelight. It's a way of hammering home a point, of indicating extreme significance. Breaking with paragraph length is particularly effective in beginnings and endings, whether of sections, chapters, or the entire book." (Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. W.W. Norton, 2006)

        One-Sentence Paragraphs

        • "This brings us to the short, one-sentence paragraph.
        • "It has been held in the past that brief, one-sentence paragraphs were the products of show-off writers. Considering that some novelists write paragraphs with only one word, you might agree with the critics of such paragraphs. These novelists write this way to arrest the reader's attention. Such short paragraphs serve also as useful typographical breaks that provide a rest from the continuous strain of reading moderate to long paragraphs. Readership-study experts have also proclaimed the short paragraph's effectiveness.
        • "Another purpose of the short, one-sentence paragraph is that such a brief unit of words provides a chance for the reader to see if he is keeping up with the presentation of facts and ideas. A short paragraph of this type lets him gets his breath for the next portion of the theme.
        • "If you use the short paragraph, make sure it is not to show off or because you're in the mood to use it. Such transition sentences should be used sparingly to get the most emphasis out of them." (Barbara Lenmark Ellis, How to Write Themes and Term Papers, 3rd ed. Barron's, 1989)

        Quotations of More Than One Paragraph

        • "When a quotation occurs within running text, an opening double quotation mark appears at the beginning of the quotation and a closing double quotation mark appears at the end. If a quotation extends over a paragraph break, an opening double quotation mark appears at the beginning of each paragraph, and a closing double quotation mark appears only at the end of the last paragraph in the quotation." (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook. University of California Press, 2006)
        • "In a typical story, when no dialogue tags are used, [the] switch between speakers is suggested only by a paragraph break and an indentation." (R. Andrew Wilson, Write Like Hemingway. Adams Media, 2009)

        Asterisks

        "A break in copy that is more important than a paragraph break can be indicated by a row of asterisks or even a single asterisk." (John Lewis, Typography: Design and Practice, 1977; JM Classic Editions, 2007)
         

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        Your Citation
        Nordquist, Richard. "Paragraph Break." ThoughtCo, Apr. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-paragraph-break-1691480. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 22). Paragraph Break. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-paragraph-break-1691480 Nordquist, Richard. "Paragraph Break." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-paragraph-break-1691480 (accessed December 11, 2017).