Go Pro!

Ask Professor Puzzler

Do you have a question you would like to ask Professor Puzzler? Click here to ask your question!

Angelika from the Philippines wants to know "How to locate the topic sentence."

Well, Angelika, first we need to determine what a "topic sentence" is. A topic sentence is a sentence that summarizes what a paragraph (or essay) is about. In theory, every paragraph is about a single topic; a change in topic is how we recognize that we should have a change in paragraph.

So if you want to find the topic sentence, you need to be asking yourself, "What is this paragraph about?" Then you look for a sentence that summarizes that idea. Once you've found that sentence, you've found the topic sentence. More importantly, though, you know what the paragraph is about, which is the main goal!

Where is the topic paragraph usually found? Well, that depends on the type of writing. If you are reading a technical document or a persuasive essay, you are more likely to find the topic sentence at the beginning. But there's no guarantee that you'll find it in any one location. Let's look at a couple example paragraphs.

Dishwasher repair is a complicated process. Before you can begin your repairs, you need to take the dishwasher apart. Then you need to understand which part is broken. Once you've found the broken part you need to decide if it can be fixed, or if you need to order a replacement part. Then comes the process of removing the broken part and installing the new one, which might require you to remove other parts as well, just to get at the broken part. Now you have to remember where those parts go so you can put them back in the right place after installing the replacement part. Then you have to put the whole assemblage back into positiion and test it out.

So, what is this paragraph about? It's about repairing a dishwasher. But, to be more precise, it's about the challenges you'll face while doing the job. Which sentence indicates that repairing a dishwasher is challenging? The very first sentence! That's your topic sentence.

Here's another example.

Every morning the alarm went off at 4:30, and John mumbled and stumbled and grumbled out of bed to start his work day. But getting out of bed wasn't the worst part of the job. John's co-workers were even crankier than he was at 5:00 when they arrived to open up the store. Early morning was always a hassle because nobody ever did cleanup properly the night before when the store was closed for the night. A spilled soda on aisle seven, a meat freezer that was left open, a container of broken light bulbs in aisle twenty-two; if it wasn't one thing it was another. And all that was before the customers even arrived - at 7:30 a mob of demanding, insulting, greedy, snarling people stormed through doors, and the day just went downhill from there. John really hated his job.

Do you feel like you have a good sense for what this paragraph is about? If we look at the first sentence, we see that it's about John getting up in the morning. Is that what the entire paragraph is about? No, of course not! It's also about what happens when he gets to work, and what happens when the customers arrive. So that first sentence is probably not the topic sentence.

So what is the paragraph really about? It sounds like it's mostly about how miserable John is in his job. Do we have a sentence that says this? Sure! It's the last sentence in the paragraph: "John really hated his job." Does that sentence do a good job describing what the paragraph is about? It sure does!

Does every paragraph have a topic sentence? That depends on the type of writing you're doing. If you're doing a persuasive essay or thesis, then probably yes. If you're writing a narrative like the one above, not necessarily. For example, suppose the writer of the "John" paragraph had left out the sentence "John really hated his job." That wouldn't have changed the meaning of the paragraph much; the reader would probably have inferred that the topic of the paragraph is how miserable John is in his job. However, the paragraph never explicitly states the topic in a sentence.

And that's okay...for that type of writing.

Understanding Coronavirus Spread

A Question and Answer session with Professor Puzzler about the math behind infection spread.

Blogs on This Site

Reviews and book lists - books we love!
The site administrator fields questions from visitors.
Like us on Facebook to get updates about new resources
Pro Membership