34 Comments

  1. The “topic sentence” is supposed to introduce the main idea that is to be discussed in the paragraph of a work. Without seeing the rest of the paragraph or essay, it’s hard to say if that is a good topic sentence or not.

  2. Yup, everyone has it. In grade school this is how students are taught the steps of writing (as I am sure everyone here knows, but why not point it out?). First, create a topic sentence. He misheard it as tropic sentence.

    Now, I was also looking for a SpongeBob reference (and I just had to look up whether his name was one or two words, it is of course one word with a capital B in the middle). I suppose a pineapple AT the beach is not as unusual as a pineapple UNDER the sea.

  3. I managed to go through school — and graduate college as an English major — without ever coming across the phrase “topic sentence.”

  4. I have never heard of it before either, but I am handicapped by being an Englishman in Englandland.

  5. “What’s a pinecipple?”

    Well, a past pinecipple is a cone from last year’s Xmas tree, and a present pinecipple is one on this year’s tree, the one with a present under it.

  6. Topic sentences might be something from olden times. In the 50’s and 60’s I was taught about them every time we talked about writing English papers or even research papers in history and other subjects. It’s supposed to be the first sentence in a paragraph introducing what the paragraph will be about. I remember struggling over this every time I wrote. Then when I was a bit older, I decided real writers don’t pay any attention to it.

  7. Bookworm, I’M from the olden days. I just don’t ever remember it being called this.

    Of course I figure out early on that the first line sells the entire story or article, so maybe I just never paid any attention to what it was called; the same way I always knew how to use the past pluperfect tense without knowing what it was called.

  8. Andréa, if the kid simply misheard “topic” as “tropic”, everything else about what a topic sentence is and what it should do should, functionally, be a topic sentence.

    CIDU Bill, maybe you were taught the concept using different terminology?

  9. @narmitaj – You may have been handicapped by the Encyclopaedia Britannica being transferred to America for the landmark 11th edition in 1911. “topic sentence”s were a key part of the grammar section. I’ve been a grammar nut since my late elementry school experience with “Warriner’s Book of Grammar and Composition” (.. along with our engaging teacher). We also had Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”, but not assigned much in it, I think because it wasn’t really a school book

    @CIDU Bill – I find it that hard to believe, especially if you went to school in New Jersey. (I can conceive the possibility of it, but can’t help but think it was taught to your grade school class) However, even I reacted like you, with a sense of denial, to the sight of “topic sentence”. (It took me a while to remember; then I had a little explosion of memories of the classroom, the Warriner’s book, and doing writing exercises.)
    The term, “topic sentence”, has been part of composition study for over 100 years.
    I think the term “tropic sentence”, with the ‘r’, entrained our mind into another state. My CEO, a few weeks ago, guided me to a study on the science of how one’s mind can be entrained with a series of carefully worded questions. (don’t remember the name of the study right now).
    I’ve also been drawn into everything I can read about memory, especially the discovery that when we remember things, they are rewritten. The long un-thought memories have been found to be more accurate. I’d mention the detailed RadioLab episode, but their episode titles are too creative to have words like “brain” and “memory” in them, and I can’t remember this one.

    Being an English major in college, you probably also learned so much, and had so much focus on it, that you’d need significant time to remember the early awakening that launched you on that path. (As an engineer, I wish I’d been helped to do more creative, compelling, and concise writing in college.) Did you give yourself the wonderful gift of taking more than a few seconds before reacting?

    Again, for me, it was also a CIOSOU at first. (Comic I Only Sort of Understood).

    (I just discovered that I don’t know how to use “conceive” in a sentence; I find myself thinking that an “of’ should be involved.)

  10. Bookworm, I am younger than CIDU Bill and I was taught about topic sentences. But you can never be sure what sticks. I don’t know what “real” writers do, but I know good ones know when and how to bend or ignore “the rules”. The purpose of “the rules” is to help the masses write grocery lists and letters to grandmother. Having spend a good number of years, off and on (currently on), earning a living writing and being involved with writers’ groups as well, I can assure you that “literate” is not synonymous with “talented”. I’ve seen a lot of bad writing; the worst writers, in my opinion, are those who think they’re better than they actually are. They’re nigh unteachable.

    CIDU Bill: Past pluperfect is redundant. Not gonna lie–looked it up.

  11. SBill, I couldn’t tell you what “past pluperfect” means if you held a gun to my head.

    But if it does exist, I probably use it properly.

    So maybe I’ve heard the phrase “topic sentence” before, or maybe I’ve heard it called something else, but I have rewritten a whole lot of other writers’ opening sentences.

  12. CIDU Bill, sentence diagramming is what made me love English class! Suddenly grammar made sense. I wonder if anyone still teaches it.

  13. I remember in the early 90s coming across a book which surveyed top writers or top pieces of writing from the last 50(?) or so years, to back its thesis that none of these writers or pieces of writing were written in the style taught in writing class (5 sentence paragraphs, tropic sentence, concluding sentence, etc.) At the time it was rather liberating to read.

  14. I remember some sentence diagramming, mostly when I was younger. Specific grammar instruction diminished to the point of being absent as I got older. By the time I was 12 I think it was entirely gone. When I started taking a foreign language at the university level, that’s when I really learned a lot about grammar because they started talking about it and would normally reference how it worked in Japanese by comparing it to how it worked in English. I’ve also found French texts that compare how French grammar works that taught me a lot about English grammar. I also took some teaching ESL classes in university, intro linguistics, and dedicated grammar classes. So, I should really be a LOT smarter than I am.

  15. larK, same with music. In music theory class we studied the rules of counterpoint and harmony and voice leading, and then had fun finding all the places where Bach broke or ignored the rules.

  16. On several occasions I have heard Germans cite a “rule” for English usage or grammar that I had never heard of before. In most cases they seemed to be simple observations of general habits, or simplifications for everyday use. The problem is that Germans are used to a definitive, official rule book that governs the one, true, and holy path to enlightened and correct usage of proper language. It is difficult to convince them that there isn’t any such singular authority for English, but rather a whole collection of standards, most of which are usually in general agreement, but always with the caveat that there may be an alternative opinion on specific issues.

  17. @Kevin A: “Conceive of” is used in some contexts:
    conceive of something (as something): God is often conceived of as male.
    (From Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary)
    There is also “conceive that”, or “conceive what/how etc.”

  18. I think what was liberating about the book was that its thesis was stronger than just, “good authors break the rules”; its thesis was these so-called “rules” where invented post hoc and have no proven value, even as pedagogical devices — they constrain more than they educate.

    I remember writing reports where we were supposed to use note cards first, and then do outlines, and then do a first draft, where I wrote the final report first, and then did the note cards and all the other jazz.

    Ah, you might argue, but you clearly already knew how to write well! These rules are to teach those who don’t know how to write well how to write well!

    But, I counter, show me one instance where someone who didn’t write well was able to learn to write well with the contrivance of these rules. You can’t, you can only show people who have been shackled by these rules, who continue not to be able to write well,and worse, don’t even know it!

    Somehow, it must be possible to teach how to write well, because people exist who can do it and they must have learned somehow, but this method is demonstrably not the way to achieve that.

    As I say, it was liberating to read at the time. I’m more on the fence now. Yes, those stupid methods uncreatively applied can certainly constrain the young eager mind, as it did for me, but there is something to be said for clarity of thought, and at least being able to reduce your ideas to this least common denominator, even if you don’t actually let your final product derive from it. You’ll never learn a foreign language studying the grammar of it, but at some point you do need to understand the grammar of it, even if it is your own native language. Music theory has me totally stumped. I am at a point now late in life where I would desperately love to understand it, but any lesson I take, any youtube video discussion I look at about it, sounds like so much mumbo jumbo — I cannot find first principles that I can reliably build from to deduce concepts — everything seems like a post hoc rationalization or a just so explanation. And yet I know there is structure there, I can hear it, I can get better at it just practicing, but I can’t understand it, I can’t derive rules for arriving at it. Three years into practicing singing, I am much better at staying in key, I can hear different keys, but I can’t explain it. I would love to be able to harmonize, and I can hear that I can’t do it, but I have no idea how to go about learning how to do it. The teaching advice seems to be, “do it like this” [proceeds to sing in harmony], and “no, no, not like that” [when I fail to produce harmony].

    I knew how to write, I don’t quite know how to sing. Had it been reversed, would drilling five sentence paragraph technique on me have taught me to write well? I doubt it, just as now I seem to be unable to learn through theory the music things I wish I knew.

    I think the answer for both is, “practice, practice, practice!” and “you’ll know it when you see it”. I don’t like those answers, but that seems to be the way it is…

  19. larK: Part of the problem of learning music theory is the language. They’ve taken standard English words and used them in a way never used elsewhere. The interval between two notes could be a third or a fifth. A third or fifth of what, you ask? *BZZZ* Wrong question!

    A third is smaller than a fifth. A third is an interval between three notes, and a fifth is an interval between five notes. But, again, it’s not that simple because they’re not actually counting the intervals, they’re counting the notes, and they include the starting note. So the “interval” “between” a note and itself, rather than being based on the word for zero, is “unison”. And that’s why there are 7 differently-named notes in an octave; they count both the beginning and ending “do”.

    When I finally realized the above, I decided to stop trying to learn music theory on my own.

  20. Arthur: Darn, I was going to ask you to be my music theory tutor!

    Did you give up on music theory, or did you learn it, and if so, do you have a recommendation, because I like your style.

  21. larK, I gave up. It’s mostly academic, anyway, since I can’t even carry a tune, though I do write lyrics.

  22. larK, you are a man/woman/non-binary lifeform/ artificial intelligence after my own heart. I will now try to write an even longer response.

    The rules certainly were, largely, invented post hoc. Worse still is that a lot of those rules were invented, and imposed on us, by precriptivist grammarians who loved Latin (a language that English is not based on [though French is and, since 1066, when the French conquered England and never left, French has had a large influence on English]. That’s how you get stupid rules like “You cannot put a preposition at the end of a sentence”. In Latin, the preposition can only go in front of what it is referencing. But “prepositions” at the end of sentences already had a long tradition in English when that rule was made up. Same with the rule against splitting infinitives. My Latin-knowing friend advised me that the infinitive is a single word so it cannot be split, unlike English, where we’re using two words, like “to go”. So you can’t split the infinitive in Latin because because there aren’t two words shove another betwixt. But in English “to boldy go” is totally legit, has been for ages and if you claim you can’t understand it, it’s not because the writer is illiterate, you’re just being an AH.

    There are also the “rules” that aren’t rules at all. They are simply guiding principles that we teach children do they don’t mess things up too much. Like telling children not to start a sentence with “because”. That’s not a rule. We do it because starting a sentence with “because” can result in you accidentally writing a fragment and not a full sentence and that can impair understanding. There are other reasons too. Because, for example, if you listen to a 5-year-old telling a story, they are inclined to start every other line with “because” and their writing would be tedious as hell, we tell them to never start a sentence with because.

    And the rule about “they” being plural and using it as a singular pronoun is an abomination forced on us by the LGBT2QA heathen, well, singular ‘they’ has a long history.

    While I’m not some full-on descriptivist hippie, English would have been better served if grammarians had attempted to capture how the language was used, rather than trying to make it work like Latin.

    As an aside (for we are not wandering nearly enough already), in my professional writing, much of which gets out in front of the public, I still tend to adhere to those clunky rules about prepositions, unsplit infinitives, etc. Corporate clients who are paying for marketing content don’t want people thinking they make grammatical errors, so better to be cautious. However, some clients are more loose and it depends on the work. If we’re ghost writing a blog for a CEO who wants to be humanized, ending a sentence with a preposition is fine. The corporate world has embraced singular “they” as well.

    I do not agree with the idea that these rules are not useful, though. First, they set a baseline on how it works. Mastery of that won’t make you a great writer. But it will make you one that can be understood by a reader with even moderate education anywhere your writing goes in the English-speaking world. Dialect, on the other hand, especially when one tries to capture on the page, doesn’t travel so well.

    So it’s not teaching people to write well, but it is teaching them to write competently. And by “them”, I mean the lazy masses who would otherwise be illiterate. When I was growing up, I was a fat awkward kid (my, how things…stay the same) and I loved my books. My parents (neither of whom even went to high school) were always reading, always read me stories, and bought me lots of books. I was eager to get to school and learn to read properly. I was the kind of kid who literally read a book while walking down the sidewalk. The rules weren’t for me.

    When I say the rules weren’t for me, I mean that I read so much that I learned by seeing examples of how writing can be done, how similar ideas can be expressed in different ways, etc. I suspect that you, larK, were like me in that respect. And as we got older and read more advanced things, again we learned more advanced ways of writing. I loved the parts of class where we got to write stories or paragraphs or the essay questions on tests. But the people who didn’t like reading and didn’t do it much weren’t not as good at it. Yes, there are real reasons (eyesight, cognitive impairments, etc.) that people may not read as well as others, but a lot of it has to do with not enough practice. So, to make these folks who don’t want to read functional for basic employment as wage slaves, they are taught the rules. They will not produce anything of great note, but they can write memos and file things just fine.

    You can teach the basics. Then you can show some advanced techniques, Then they can practice. And that’s how you turn every kid into LeBron James. Oh, wait, it’s not. Because you need something more. We call it talent or a gift or whatever. But whatever, there are some things that some people are better at than other people. I know how to play basketball, but at a laughably bad level. No amount of practice would make me LeBron James. Just like, I’ll bet, I can write circles around the guy. But I bet I could teach him to write a somewhat better than he does and he could up my b-ball game a bit. And if we each practiced…I’d still be a much better writer than him and he’d still not care as his private jet flew over the bus I was riding.

    The lie that we tell people, that there is a quick way to be an excellent writer that doesn’t involve a lot of practice and time reading and that they can be great writers does a huge disservice to them. We don’t expect everyone to be capable of advanced calculus, why do we expect everyone to be able to write well?

    I too love music but am baffled by music theory. Much like I’m baffled by advanced math. Which is interesting for us both (though maybe you are good at math), since both music and math are other languages. They’re another way of describing things, communicating.

    I agree that if one shows an aptitude (and some joy) for something, they should practice because it might be a thing they’re very good at and will enjoy and less capable people will give them money to watch them do it or do it on their behalf. I diverge, though, because I think it’s folly to expect and insist everyone be excellent at everything. I had a boss who said that he wanted to focus on letting me shine in the things I am excellent at, not having me struggle at trying to improve stuff I’m only okay at. If only there were more like him.

    Certainly, there is a level of competence in many areas that need be taught to children to prepare them to function. But once they are competent, we need to let them be excellent.

    And, for any that are holding back tears, having realized they do not write well. There are many best-selling authors who do not write well. Given that so many people do not read well and have little in the way of critical skills, one can stumble into the big time with minimal skill. Heck, there were people genuinely campaigning to give the first Harry Potter book a Booker–McConnell Prize. So there’s hope.

  23. @Kevin A – you sure know how to invoke the spirits! I just went up to the attic bookshelf and found my 1957 edition of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition which my 11th grade English teacher swore would be an invaluable reference. Hah. A few inches down the shelf was the copy of Strunk and White from my freshman humanities course. Neither had much impact on my engineering career.

    You may be able to deduce that I can’t bring myself to throw away a book.

  24. There is a Twitter account under the name MC Hammer with a blue check (that is supposed to mean verified) which posts things in Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, Category Theory I think, etc. Recent title: “Against the Epistemological Primacy of the Hardware: The Brain from Inside Out, Turned Upside Down”. Or maybe they were just citing a link to an academic author; but that is not nothing either!

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