The Topic, Main Idea, and Organizational Patterns of Paragraphs
English is a topic-centered language. In every paragraph, or any longer text, the writer focuses on discussing a single main topic. All the details provided are used to support his ideas about that topic. In all good paragraphs you will therefore find three essential elements, i.e. a topic, a main idea, and some details. In relation to this, your understanding of a paragraph depends on your to determine the topic and main idea.
A topic is the one thing the whole paragraph is about. It is the unifying factor, which every sentence and idea contained in the paragraph relate to. To find the topic of a paragraph, ask yourself this question: “Which person, event, practice, theory, or idea is most frequently mentioned or referred to in the paragraph?” Usually, the topic of a paragraph can be expressed in one word or a phrase consisting of two or more words. That’s why a topic could also be defined as the word or phrase that best describes what all of the sentences in the paragraph are about. To illustrate, let’s use the following paragraph.
Computer chips have changed our way of life. With computer chips, we can make very small computers. Space scientists use these small computers in satellites and space ships. Large companies use these small computers for business. We can make very small calculators with computer chips. Some calculators are as small as a credit card, and these calculators are not very expensive. Computer chips are also used for making digital watches. A normal watch has a spring and moving hands, but a digital watch has no moving parts. A digital watch show the time and date with numbers, and some digital watches even have an alarm and a stopwatch. The computer chip makes all of this possible.
The phrase “computer chips”, as indicated by the underlining, is the most frequently mentioned thing in this paragraph. It is the one that best describes what all of the sentences in the paragraph are about. Thus, this is the topic of the paragraph.
Most paragraphs state the topic, but some writers frequently imply the topic. Thus, to identify the topic, readers have to synthesize, or combine; different words in the paragraph To be useful, the topic you select or create should be general enough to include everything discussed in the paragraph. At the same time, it should be specific enough to exclude what isn’t. To illustrate, read the following paragraph.
Traffic is directed by color. Pilot instrument panels, landing strips, road and water crossings are regulated by many colored light and signs. Factories use color to distinguish between thoroughfares and work areas. Danger zones are painted in special colors. Lubrication points and removable parts are accentuated by color. Pipers for transporting water, steam, oil, chemicals, and compressed air, are designated by different colors. Electrical wires and resistances are color-coded.
In this paragraph, the topic is not directly stated. However, by considering the whole sentence, it is clear that the paragraph discusses about the uses of color in modern technological instrument. This is the topic of the paragraph.
Here is another example.
Frances Wright was a brilliant and determined woman who believed that she could have changed an unjust world. Inspired by her belief, Wright founded, in 1826, an experimental community called Nashoba. It was to be a place where black men and women could work together until they were able to purchase their freedom from slavery. But for all its good intentions, the community was a failure. Plagued by bad weather and illness, Nashoba produced nothing but debts. By 1830, it was only a memory, forgotten by everyone but the people who helped start it.
Initially, as you begin reading this paragraph, you might think that “Nashoba” is the topic. But as you continue reading, you discover that the paragraph does not focus on the working of the community called Nashoba. Instead it focuses on the community’s failure. However, the word failure does not appear until the fourth sentence of the paragraph. In order to express the precise topic of the paragraph, i.e. “failure of Nashoba“, you have to construct it by combining words from different sentence.
A main idea is what the author says, thinks, or wants to communicate about the topic. It is the central or most important thought in the paragraph. Every other sentence and idea in the paragraph is related to the main idea. The main idea is usually directly stated by the writer in a sentence called the topic sentence which is usually but not always placed in the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence tells what the rest of the paragraph is about.
Since the main idea is what the author says, thinks, or wants to communicate about the topic, to determine it, you should first decide what the topic of the paragraph is. Then ask yourself these questions: What is the main idea—what is the author trying to say about the topic? Which sentence states the main idea? To illustrate, let’s take the paragraph about “computer chips” above. The whole sentences in the paragraph explained what the writer thinks about computer chips. He shows that computer chips are used to make very small computers, calculators, and digital watches which have changed our way of life. This idea is stated in the first sentence which runs “Computer chips have changed our way of life.” This is the main idea of the paragraph.
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