Numbers, Baby!


If a number is one or two words, or begins a sentence, spell it out. Otherwise, use figures.


For 13 tortuous dates I had to listen to Tiffany’s inane chatter about her ex-boyfriend, her manicures, her hemorrhoids, and I had to watch her light up the hash pipe before we boinked, But those 13 tortuous dates are over. I am free! Free! Free!


For thirteen tortuous dates I had to listen to Tiffany’s inane chatter about her ex-boyfriend, her manicures, her hemorrhoids, and I had to watch her light up the hash pipe before we boinked, But those thirteen tortuous dates are over. I am free! Free! Free!

A sentence starts with a number. You have two choices: spell out the number or rewrite the sentence.


125,000 parasitic worms were living in my intestinal tract, causing me nausea, weakness, insomnia, and pain.


Doctors estimated that 125,000 parasitic worms were living in my intestinal tract, causing me nausea, weakness, insomnia, and pain.

Use figures for addresses, dates, percents, fractions, scores, decimals, statistics, exact money amounts, divisions of books and plays, pages, ID numbers, and time.

Addresses: I grew up at 45 Gurley Road, Stamford, Connecticut, a street that dead-ended on the Long Island Sound.

Dates: On September 11, 2001, I witnessed the catastrophe from my rooftop in Brooklyn.

Percents: After my visit to Yankee Stadium, I concluded that 72% of Yankee fans are dicks; the remainder are mentally ill.

Fractions: I added ½ a cup of Coca Cola to the pot roast, a move of such utter genius that my family, some 22 years later, still begs me for the recipe.

Scores: The Mets whipped the Yankees 10-2, whipped their sorry asses so severely that those pinstriped cry babies couldn’t sit or shit for a week.

Decimals: It’s a sad fact that 0.82 of all men who shoot their wives do so after the divorce, while .73 of women who shoot their husbands do so while they are still married. No woman, however, has ever shot her husband while he’s doing the dishes.

Statistics: The average brain weight of a human brain is 3 pounds; average weight of Yankee fan brains is 1.3 pounds.

Exact money amounts: In 2001, I made $42,383.15 after I had my teeth laser-whitened, my skin tanning machine bronzed, and my posture straightened by 30 sessions with an Alexander Technique specialist.

Divisions of books: In volume 8, chapter 1, page 702, I learned that the closest thing to a Japanese wife is a Jewish husband.

Divisions of plays: In Shakespeare’s Othello, act 5, scene 2, Othello says, “I took by the throat the circumcised dog and smote him thus,” just before stabbing himself.

ID numbers: After the fire, all that was left was a tattooed serial number 32455500921, and a stick of Wrigley’s Big Red, cinnamon-flavored chewing gum.

Time: At precisely 4:30 a.m., I pulled my Checker cab onto the Queensborough Bridge, carrying two strippers from Scores, three sticks of dynamite, four tabs of windowpane acid, five filter-less Camels, six xiao long bao dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai Dumplings in Chinatown, seven double cheeseburgers from White Castle, eight AirLight, Rimfire, Model 10, 600 Series. Smith & Wesson revolvers, nine Trojan ultra-ribbed ecstasy condoms, and ten rotten teeth.





The surgeon’s scalpel shook so badly, that Brad’s soft and succulent brain ended up looking like Vanilla ice cream smothered in ketchup.

Jessica’s saucy blue eyes were more perilous than a Venus Flytrap, and Dirk, poor devil, was the fly.

Remember to add ‘s

Add ‘s to nouns that do not end in s.

I stared, both fascinated and repelled, by Conchita’s dangerous-looking liverwurst.

Add ‘s to singular nouns that end in s.

I would sell my soul to the devil for Moses’s freaky-deaky bagels.

Add only an apostrophe (no s) to nouns that end in s.

Those penniless savages chased me through the streets of Fez, ruining my Armani trousers’ perfect crease.


It’s good to be a woman, but better to be a French fry.

I simply can’t go on—not without George’s loud and smoky laughter.


Stacys lambchops and loins are juicy enough for a casual breakfast on the veranda, but not for the sort of fine dining the ambassador has grown accustomed to in Mumbai.

Dont eat that Napolean, unless you want to add gluteus to your maximus.

On a bad day, theres always lipstick; on a good day, theres Elvis’ grilled banana and peanut butter sandwiches.

Works Cited

In-text Citation:

You can mention the authors in the paragraph. This way, cite only the page number at the end of the paragraph.

Cobblemeister and Pecklharder determined that most men murder spouses after they have divorced, while most women murder spouses while they are still married. “However,” writes Cobblemeister and Pecklharder in their seminal work Shoot the Bastard, “No woman has ever shot her husband while he is doing the dishes.” (568)

How this looks on the Works Cited Page:

Cobblemeister, Birch J., and Rita M. Pecklharder. Shoot the Bastard. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

If you don’t mention authors in the paragraph, cite them in parentheses at the end of the paragraph.

Constant marijuana use, according to one study, lowers IQ by an average 45.5 points. Indeed, at the end of last year’s three-day Smoke It! fest in Stamford, Connecticut, 55 attendees were unable to do simple tasks such as adding single-digit numbers or sipping  Coca Cola through a straw (Von Holenzollen 15).

How this looks on the Works Cited Page:

Von Holenzollen, Ernst. “Pass the Damn Doobie, Dude.” Scientific American 35 (1998): 245 – 267

Electronic sources:

“Hard work had nothing to do with my wealth,” claims billionaire entrepreneur Clark. “Cigarettes and coffee are the main reason for my success” (Clam).

How this looks on the Works Cited Page:

Clam, Ben. “Billionaires Reveal Their Secrets.” We Love Billionaires, 3 June 2001. Web. 29 July 2006.


Argument Paragraph


H.L. Mencken said, “I delight in argument, not because I want to convince, but because argument itself is an end.” For Mencken, the greatest opinion-maker of his time, argument alone was sufficient. The rest of us, however, argue to persuade. In other words, we argue because we want to change another person’s mind. The most effective way we can change someone’s mind is to make sure our argument has merit. And the surest way we can make sure of that is to back up the argument with convincing evidence.

In an argument paragraph, evidence comes in three packages: examples, facts, and expert opinion. If I argue that breast milk is healthier for a baby than formula, I must to talk about the science behind that claim. I might cite statistics from studies showing that babies raised on human milk get sick less often. I might cite studies showing that breast milk-raised kids are, on average, taller and thicker-boned than kids raised on formula. To bolster my pro-breast milk argument, I might interview an expert—a scientist who has studied the effects of nursing, or a researcher for La Leche, the pro-breast milk organization. Or I might quote from a scientific paper, a news article, or a book. In short, to make my argument convincing, I must cite a convincing arguer.

Nevertheless, an argument paragraph must state both sides of the issue, then support one of those sides with evidence.

The following paragraph argues against Sesame Street.


For thirty-five years, Sesame Street has been a reliably sweet hour of Muppets and music. But it has never taught kids to read. This comes as startling news not only to parents who have, for decades, been parking their kids in front of the show as a guilt-free alternative to Scooby Doo and Power Rangers, but also to the folks at Sesame Street, a subsidiary of the The Children’s Television Workshop. CTW is a billion-dollar corporation that has sown goodwill, won over TV critics, and earned a fortune, in part by claiming that the show, and its products, teach kids how to read. Relying mostly on a 35-year-old study conducted by the Educational Testing Service, the producers of Sesame Street insist that the show teaches basic literacy. But researchers led by Thomas D. Cook at Northwestern University re-examined the ETS study and found that the learning gain was surprisingly modest. “Kids who watched for a season gained about two letters of the alphabet,” says Cook. If that’s not sobering, consider this: in 1870, a century before Sesame Street’s celebrated debut, the illiteracy rate in America was 20%. By 1992, twenty-five years after Sesame Street’s debut, twenty-five years after a good chunk of American kids had been weaned on Bert and Ernie and Big Bird and guest stars from Paul Simon to Hillary Clinton , the illiteracy rate had climbed to 23%.


Choose one of the following topics, then write an argument paragraph, or come up with your own idea.

Should we ban Internet porn?

Should men always pick up the tab on a date?

Should polygamy be legalized in America?

Should orphans be adopted only by families of their own racial or ethnic group?

Should gay marriage be legalized?

In light of the AIDS pandemic, should all schoolchildren be taught how to use condoms?

Should prayer be allowed back in the public schools?

Should we legalize corporal punishment?

Pick your own topic.




Description Paragraphs

Description paragraphs can describe anything—a mean teacher, a Big Mac, your gay uncle’s apartment, the destruction of The World Trade Center. Descriptions depict; that is, they paint a word picture that is based on experience. Experience can be anything that has to do with the five senses. Using your sense of smell or taste, you can describe a Thanksgiving meal. Using your sense of hearing, you can describe a concert. Using a combination of sight, smell, and hearing, you can describe a burning building. A description paragraph is made up of sensory details. Arrange your sensory details in logical order. As a general rule, arrange details spatially, as you would to describe a room. You also want to make sure that this logical order produces an effect. The effect, or mood, can be sad or joyous, strange or sentimental, fascinating or comical. Because the number of details you employ to achieve an effect is infinite, choose them carefully. When describing a room, do not include every scrap of paper tacked to the bulletin board, only those that help build an effect. In the following paragraph, the details help us picture an alcoholic guitar teacher in the tiny world he has fashioned.

  • My guitar teacher lives in a dark, industrial section of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park—a neighborhood crowded with trucks by day, abandoned by night—in a cluttered apartment he shares with his chubby wife, his six-year-old daughter, an angry former bandmate who lifts weights, and a small white dog who barks. Every Tuesday night, I drive there for my lesson, climb a metal staircase attached to the outside of the building, and wait as the barking dog alerts my teacher, who opens the door and cheerfully leads me into his studio, a ten-foot square clutter of musical mementos and electrics. On all sides of this room—the floor, the desk, the walls, the ceiling—he has squeezed a carnival of objects that, despite their sheer density, he never moves. To my left is a small, electric keyboard, on top of which sits a toy outhouse, always resting on middle C. The keyboard sits on a waist-high shelf that runs the length of the wall and has a groove cut in it for a guitar rest. The same guitar always rests there. Six other guitars are part of the decor; two electric, two acoustic, and two electric basses. A large cello leans against the wall behind me. Covering the walls above the shelf are hundreds of videotapes, CDs, books on jazz, blues, and rock, and back issues of Guitar Player and Bass Magazine. Alongside the tapes and books are knickknacks,  meticulously arranged: toy guitars, posters—including a Fender poster that seems to include every famous bass player in the world—four spice containers in a neat row (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme), a TV set, a loft bed piled high with clothes and electronic junk, under which is a miniature recording studio, a backpack with a tiny amplifier in front (“Amp-in-a-Bag”), and an enormous Bluenote record label stuck to the ceiling. In a tiny space cleared in the middle of the room sits my 55-year-old teacher on a backless chair, caressing a can of Miller Lite, his eyes misty as he talks about never having the musical “endowment” to make it big.

Choose one of the topics below for a description paragraph:

A favorite hangout                     A photograph
Your mother’s face                    An object in your bedroom
Your favorite meal                    An interesting piece of clothing
A painting or sculpture                             A song or piece of music
An accident you witnessed                A strange relative
A sound that bothers you                A beautiful building
Your neighbor’s desk at work                Choose your own topic

Exemplification Paragraph

Why Do Paragraphs Matter?

Reason #1. Focus.

A paragraph is a handy way to develop a thesis. Every paragraph must have a thesis, or a main idea; sometimes, but not always, with a topic sentence. Contrary to what you may have
learned in high school English, a topic sentence doesn’t have to occur at the beginning of the paragraph; it may occur at the end of the paragraph, or somewhere in the middle. In the following two paragraphs, the topic sentences are in bold type:

I have always hated peanut butter. I know, peanuts are good for you. They have nutrients and vitamins discovered by George Washington Carver, without which American children would reach adulthood stunted and retarded. In addition to the nutrition benefits, peanut butter is fun food, perfect on sandwiches with jelly or alone; perfect for eating with your fingers; a sensuous, sticky delight. But I don’t care about that. To me, peanut butter tastes like, and has the consistency of, baby poop. Not surprisingly, the mere thought of peanut butter makes me gag.

I cannot shoot a basketball. I cannot throw or catch a baseball. If you throw me into a swimming pool, I drown. I cannot skate or play football. I cannot play lacrosse, Ping Pong, or hockey, et cetera, et cetera, et-fucking-cetera. I stink at all sports.

Reason #2. Design.

Paragraphs break up the page and comfort the reader’s eyes. No one wants to look at a full page of type. So break up your text. Feed oxygen to your reader’s eyes. The white space on a page is air for the eyeballs and the mind.

Reason #3. Momentum.

Paragraphs, if placed in proper sequence, build your argument’s momentum. Some writers make an outline that builds momentum.

Reason #4. Paragraphs create unity.

As stated above, a paragraph must focus on a central idea.

Two kinds of paragraph: the chain-link paragraph and the list paragraph.

The Chain-link paragraph.

In the chain link paragraph, every sentence is linked—through a word, a phrase, or an idea—to the sentence that comes before, and the sentence that follows. Good writers pay attention to how sentences link. Below is “The Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the greatest political speech in American history. The sentences are separated and numbered so that you can more easily examine the links. In parentheses, following each sentence, are words that link the sentences.

1. Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
2. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. (nation, conceived, dedicated)
3. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. (we, war)
4. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. (we, field, nation)
5. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. (“this” refers to the previously stated idea)
6. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. (dedicate)
7. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. (consecrated, it)
8. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (here, they)
9. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. (dedicated, they)
10. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (dedicated, dead, they, nation)

In his great speech, a single paragraph, Lincoln hit all the marks: unity, cadence, momentum, political acumen. The paragraph is unified because it focuses on a single, albeit complex, idea (honoring the dead for preserving the nation’s founding ideals). It achieves cadence by repeating certain words. It achieves momentum by starting out with a simple idea, gradually becoming more complex; ending with a stupendous display of prosaic fireworks.

The List Paragraph.
To convey a single idea, a paragraph can also be a list. The sentences below are a list of ideas supporting a single idea; the narrator is a loser in the girlfriend department.

When it comes to women, I am, it would seem to casual observers, a loser. I stand barely 5’ 2” tall. I weigh a mere 115 pounds. My hair is curly and thinning. I am broke, earning just enough money at my fast food job to pay rent. I am not, by any measure, bright, having dropped out of high school in the ninth grade . And because of an aversion to water I developed early in childhood, I bath only once a month. Yet, I have four girlfriends, all of whom are desperate to marry me.

Through clarity and organization, you are leading your reader by the hand. After you have written your paragraph, examine each sentence to make sure it logically follows the sentence before it, and logically precedes the sentence after it.

Examples of well-written paragraphs:

The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,” I said, “is that I can’t even date.” Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word “date,” which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and since the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant, I got a laugh on it, though for all I know my group was only laughing because they were trying to cheer me up. I needed cheering up. I was in New York, staying at my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.
–Nora Ephron, Heartburn

Fishing is one of my favorite sports, and one of these days I expect to catch a fish. I have been at it fourteen years now and have caught everything else, including hell from the wife, a cold in the head, and up on my drinking. Next comes the fish. Immediately after that I’ll take up something else.
—Robert Benchley, “The Lure of the Rod”

This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?
—Viktor E. Frankle, Man’s Search for Meaning

Types of Paragraphs

An exemplification paragraph explains a general idea by offering specific examples. The following is an exemplification paragraph:

For ten years, I taught public school. Aside from the kid who ruined my carefully-planned lessons by making animal sounds, nothing bothered me more than the language of educators; the jargon and clichés and euphemisms found in school brochures. Take, for example, The Parent and Student Middle School Guide from Region Nine, which governs fourteen schools in Manhattan. In the booklet, one school brags that it provides all students with “academic preparation” while helping them “to think clearly” in “an enriched environment.” Another Region Nine middle school claims that its staff “is comprised of” (sic) “highly qualified professionals who specialize in the teaching of young adolescents.” A third school says that it “is dedicated to students seeking an atmosphere that offers academic rigor through intensified literary arts instruction, science and math investigations” and “an exciting inter-disciplinary, multi-cultural curriculum.” This is blather, the equivalent of a political stump speech (well, maybe not that bad). It would be impossible for any parent reading these vagaries to picture what goes on in the schools’ classrooms.

In your own words, what is the thesis of this paragraph?

From the paragraph, list five examples that support this thesis.

Choose one of the topics below as the topic for an exemplification paragraph:

How to deal with lazy colleagues

Weight-loss programs

Dates from hell

Computer problems

Dream boyfriends or girlfriends

What good teachers have in common

Fashion faux-pas

Bad hip-hop

Prejudice I have encountered because I am (black, Asian, Jewish, Hispanic, etc.)

Examples of successful parties I’ve attended

Choose your own topic.

fashion faux pas

Writing Tip: Free Writing.

Free-writing is a good way to come up with ideas. Write for ten minutes straight. For the duration of these ten minutes, do not lift your pen. If you cannot think of anything, write, “I can’t think of what to write.” If you get stuck, keep rewriting the sentence you are stuck on until you get unstuck. You can also write down random thoughts. If you do this with an open mind, great ideas will come.

Coordination and Subordination (main and subordinate clauses)

Independent clause: A clause—a grammatical construction containing a subject and predicate (basically, a verb) that can stand by itself as a sentence.

Dependent clause: A dependent clause cannot stand by itself as a sentence, and functions as a noun, adjective or adverb.

Begonia should stifle her lunatic impulses and stop drinking.

Dependent clause: Begonia should stifle her lunatic impulses.
Independent clause: and stop drinking.

Compound sentence
A compound sentence contains two or more coordinate independent clauses but no subordinate clauses. “Coordinate clause” means the main clause.

I love crack, but I hate Camel filters.
I love sweet dreams, so I treasure my Swedish massage bed.

“but” and “so” are coordinating conjunctions (along with and, or, nor, for, and yet), often used to introduce independent clauses.

Complex sentence
A complex sentence contains one independent clause and one or more subordinate clauses. A subordinate clause is an independent clause that modifies the main clause.

Although my eyes had serious dark circles, I celebrated Mark’s birthday by going with him to the secret place under the stairs.

Whenever I clip my toenails and floss my molars, I think of Zelda.

Although and whenever are two examples of subordinating conjunctions—conjunctions that introduce subordinate clauses.

Compound-complex sentence (contains two or more independent clauses and one or more subordinate clauses)

Although her lips put me in a state of white heat, I vowed to escape her clutches, and I shredded her phone number.

Next to each of the following sentences, write compound, complex, or compound-complex.

a. Although RBD started out as a Mexican soap opera, it evolved into a group of six, sickeningly cute Latin pop singers.


b. She was modeling a Dior dress made of ruffled tulle and sheer gossamer and ostrich feathers, and she looked like a turkey wrapped in aluminum foil.

Beyonce in Dior

c. Because I am trying to drop seventy pounds, I am giving up candy forever, but I must eat one of these limited-edition Hershey Kisses.

d. Alladin had a lamp, but even he couldn’t make me fall for Calixta.

Comparison and Contrast

We spend almost every moment of our lives trying to make sense of the world by putting things into categories. If we are junior-high school teachers, we wonder if a new student will be an easy-going chap who adapts to classroom rules, or a trouble-maker. In either case, we are comparing and contrasting that kid with other kids we have taught. Those of us with children of our own do the same. We look at our kids (if we have more than one) and ask, Why is the older one better at reading than the younger one? Why does the younger one have more friends than the older one? Why are both kids smarter than me? As we ask these questions, we are comparing and contrasting.

Comparison shows the similarities between two things. Contrast shows the differences. A comparison-and-contrast paragraph shows how two things are alike or how they differ, or both. Comparison-and-contrast essays are useful for writing about almost any topic. They are good for writing about history (the similarities between the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians and the German annihilation of the Jews, for example), about the similarities between luxury cars, about the relative merits of low-carb and low-fat diets.

What follows are five paragraphs making a point-by-point comparison between two forms of transportation:

When I moved to New York City in 1979, it was impossible to board a subway train without some glitch making the journey a miserable experience; a long delay (compounded by the conductor rarely giving an explanation), a gang of cigarette-puffing thugs marching through the cars, broken air-conditioning on the hottest day in July, a re-routed train depositing me forty blocks north of my destination. By 1983, I began bicycling to Manhattan. I quickly discovered a number of advantages. First, it was good exercise. Wearing my Walkman, I pedaled the ten miles between my home near Prospect Park and my job on West 46th Street; over a period of six months, I lost fifteen pounds. Riding a bicycle was also cheap. The subway fare was a dollar, so I saved two dollars a day, or ten dollars a week; no small amount considering I was making a weekly $140. I also saw a city that, had I been riding the subway, my nose buried in the Daily News, I would have missed.

I saw huge cranes making buildings rise. I saw new cafes, seemingly opening overnight. I saw exotic and beautiful people in clothes that looked as if they had been manufactured on Jupiter. I saw potholes spewing steam, trucks delivering frozen pigs to the meat district, yellow school buses unloading bearded Jews in the diamond district. And during my bike rides, I got the weather.

I cycled when it was ten degrees out and my fingers froze, even with two pairs of gloves. I cycled when it was 101 degrees out, sweat-drenched shoppers staggering from one air-conditioned store to the next. I cycled in pouring rain and blinding snow and, if I were lucky, on cloudless days when the sky was bluer than a robin’s egg.

Best of all, twice each day, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the spider-cabled thread that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. The bridge, with its stone towers and wooden bike path and mighty view of two boroughs passively facing each other, was a time machine; a daily reminder that going from Brooklyn to Manhattan was as difficult as it had been in 1883.

Once, as I crossed from Manhattan to Brooklyn at 6 am, soft snow was falling. The pre-dawn sky was purple-black, and I was the only one on the bridge. Suddenly, my wheels slid out from under me, and I hit the snow-covered boards, gently sliding a good fifteen feet. It did not hurt. When I stopped sliding, I lay on my back, staring at the stone towers, the purple sky behind them, snow falling on my face. Wanting to stay there forever, I raised my head and saw, half a mile away, the Manhattan Bridge. And in the middle of the bridge was a delayed D-train, its passengers staring morosely out their windows at me and at the snow they could not feel.


Below are a number of topics for a comparison and contrast paragraph. Choose one of them or choose your own. Make sure the comparison you choose is valid. For example, unless you plan on being funny, do not compare and contrast pineapples and nuclear bombs.

Two popular singers or bands
Chocolate versus sex
A life of public service versus a life of selfish gain.
How you speak when you are with friends and family versus how you speak at work.
A good-looking lover versus a homely one.
Whisky versus beer.
How we chose our friends when we are six-years-old versus how we choose our friends now.
Public schools versus private schools.
Your mother compared to your father.
The worst two jobs you ever had.
Macs versus PCs

Cause and Effect Paragraph

A cause makes a thing happen; an effect is what results when that thing happens. If you brush your teeth and your teeth get whiter, then brushing is the cause and whitening is the effect. A cause-and-effect paragraph helps a reader understand why things happen: the weakening of the ozone layer, the war in Vietnam, the spike in teenage obesity.

While cause-and-effect paragraphs may be indispensable to writers who explain politics, human behavior, or the hard sciences, they can also be misleading. If a school, for example, has high reading scores, it may have nothing to do with the quality of teaching and everything to do with students the school has recruited. If I happen to be an honest fellow with good study habits and the ability to make friends, it may have nothing to do with how my parents raised me and everything to do with my genes.

Nevertheless, a cause-and-effect paragraph can be a valuable tool for explaining outcomes and trends, and an excellent way to predict future trends

Sample Cause-And-Effect Paragraph

In New York City, fifty percent of all public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. While the teachers union and some politicos have charged that the high attrition rate is due to the salary gap between city teachers and their brethren in the suburbs, the real problem is student behavior. There are approximately 1.1 million public school students, and many of them, especially those in poor neighborhoods, have family problems that make it hard for them to sit still for five hours a day. These students may come from homes with no books, where TV sets blare all day, where no parent or older sibling has a college degree, where generations of kids have found the world of academics foreign, frustrating, and fruitless. Because many of these students cannot read a menu or calculate two-digit addition problems, they find long hours in the classroom tortuous. And while classrooms can absorb one or two of these kids—that is, the teacher can teach with a minimum of disruption—classrooms with four or more problem students reach a critical mass. The bad kids tip the good kids, and the simplest lesson becomes a test of wills between teacher and student. Only the most patient, most gifted teacher can endure more than a couple of years of these daily battles. If she wants to keep teaching, she flees for greener pastures —schools like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Midwood—or a school in Westchester. The result is alarming: perhaps half of the city’s 1000 schools have green-horn teachers with only a few years experience. Many of these novices don’t know their subjects and don’t know how to control a room filled with difficult kids. Many soon find non-teaching jobs. As a result, the teaching profession, at least the way it’s practiced in New York City, becomes a form of slumming, or something to do until you grow up—like the Peace Corps or the army.

Choose one of the following topics and write a cause and effect paragraph

Why is Paris Hilton, someone with minimal talent and iffy looks, so popular?
What is one cause of weight gain?
Why has President Bush, despite his frat-boy persona and mangled syntax, won so many elections?
Why do women, despite their frequent denials, love macho men?
Despite so much evidence that prayer does not work, why do so many people persist in praying fervently and often?
Why is it preferable (or silly) to marry someone of your own ethnicity or religion?
Why hasn’t soccer, the world’s most popular sport, caught on in America?
How does smoking marijuana affect your mental or physical health?
Why does flattery work, even when the person being flattered knows you are a lying liar?
Why do men and women cheat?
What is the effect of high interest rates on the stock market?
Although it is fake, why is professional wrestling so popular?
Choose your own topic.


Process Paragraphs

A process paragraph is a series of steps that explain how something happens. Or it explains how to make something. It can explain anything from the growth of a malignancy to parallel parking to baking sourdough bread. It gives tips for conquering insomnia or for removing nose hair. Because such explanations must be clear, the process paragraph must be written in chronological order, and it must include a topic sentence that clearly states the paragraph’s purpose. It must also include transition words and phrases—“first,” “next,” “finally,” for example—that connect each of the steps.

There are two kinds of process paragraphs: a process explanation and a set of instructions. A process explanation explains a process without assuming that the reader will afterwards know how to carry out that process. A set of instructions gives the reader step-by-step guidance.

The following is an example of a process explanation paragraph:

How I Deal With My Nephew’s Obsessions.

Some years ago, my nephew was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), meaning he often becomes fixated on making something happen that is impractical or impossible. Over the years I have learned, through trial and error, that by taking the following steps I can calm him when he gets into one of his OCD jags. First, I calm myself. I have to stay calm because at first sign of trouble—that, for instance, he has become stuck on buying a cat we have seen in an animal shelter—I become irritated, even enraged. So I tell myself, This is not the end of the world. I tell myself, His fixation might go on for an hour, but no longer. After I am calm, I listen with a sympathetic ear to the problem. I ask him to tell me what he wants, and I let him talk as long as he wants. I also make a mental note to give the conversation at least ten minutes, even checking my watch to make sure that I do not interrupt (unless asked) until a full ten minutes has passed. Ten minutes might not seem like a long time, but when I anticipate ten hours devoted to one, apparently-trivial problem, ten hours that could be devoted to his sister’s needs (I sometimes baby-sit both of them), I am bound to be impatient. Sometimes, ten to fifteen minutes of active listening will solve the problem. And while he talks, I make sure to maintain eye contact, which reinforces the idea that my listening is sincere. If this doesn’t work, I try to distract him by changing the subject. “Before I forget,” I might say, “did you hear the Mets are thinking of trading Reyes?” Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, and he is about to suffer an atomic meltdown, I have one more weapon: candy.

1. In the above paragraph, what is the topic sentence?

2. Is this an explanation paragraph or a set of instructions or a combination of both?

3. Below, list each of the steps in the process:
a. _________________________________________

b. _________________________________________

c. _________________________________________

d. _________________________________________

c. _________________________________________

Choose one of the following topics and write a process paragraph

How to choose a gift for a new boyfriend or girlfriend
How to use a word-processing program to insert footnotes
How to develop a powerful tennis serve.
How to clean a bathroom
How to make friends
How to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend
How to make the perfect tunafish sandwich
How to change an o-ring on a leaky faucet
How to make turkey stuffing
Choose your own topic


Writing tip:
A great author said that the last thing he writes in a novel is the beginning. He meant that we do not know what we want to say until we have finished saying it. When writing a paragraph, you might have to change your thesis sentence to fit the thesis. If, for example, you are a diabetic writing a process paragraph about testing your blood for insulin levels, your original thesis might be about using the testing apparatus. But, after writing the paragraph, you might discover that the thesis you’ve written is more about the pain of having to prick your finger every few hours than about the apparatus. So, you might change “The Accu-Chek kit is an economical, easy-to-use blood-testing kit” to “At first, most of us are squeamish about pricking our fingers, but in a surprisingly short period of time, we get used to it.”