My weekend encounter with Alexander Bain reminded me of my second posting on this blog. At the time, I mentioned my confusion about the writing instruction that was part of our EAP program. When I came to my current position, our 8-level intensive English language program had upper-level students write "extended paragraphs" of 300-500 words. These were not merely monster paragraphs forming part of an assignment; each was to be a complete mini-essays.
We've managed to move away from assigning paragraphs, but there are many other questionable rules of writing that continue to permeate college writing textbooks and seduce composition teachers. Alexander Bain appears to be behind a number of them.
According to James A. Berlin's Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges, paragraph writing (as opposed to composition broadly speaking) got its start in the (North) American college system in the 19th century at a time when college writing was growing in popularity--growing to the point where many classes had daily compositions. The move to paragraphs was partially as a response to the overwhelming amount of marking required from longer compositions. Berlin writes,
"Alexander Bain, a Scottish rhetorician, was the first to discuss the (paragraph) systematically. Having studied actual paragraphs, Bain prescribed a set of six rules:He goes on to say that A. D. Hepburn, under Bain's influence, was likely the first, in his 1875 A Manual of English Rhetoric, to argue that a paragraph was a “discussion in miniature”, proposing paragraph types such as definition, contrast, and illustration.
Bain also tended to look upon the six rules as principles without exception, as did those who followed him in their use in the classroom."
- Each sentence must be related to that which preceded it;
- parallel thought must employ parallel structure;
- The first sentence of a paragraph should indicate the subject;
- Each sentence should be appropriately situated within the paragraph;
- The paragraph must display unity, and;
- Principal and subordinate parts must be appropriately arranged...
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