Technical Writing and the Development of the English Paragraph 14731700 Academic Article uri icon


  • What is currently known about the history of the paragraph has relied on the work of the first English and American compositionists, humanists, and philologists of the late nineteenth century. Alexander Bain and his followers defined the requirements for the English paragraph and believed it had not existed prior to the eighteenth century. Their sole focus, on humanist and historical writing, yielded a distorted, if not an incorrect history of the paragraph. This article begins to correct that view, prevalent since 1866, by examining paragraphs of practical works, such as printed how-to books of the early English Renaissance until 1700. The variety and quantity of how-to documents increased with the growth of knowledge, advent of printing, and emergence and expansion of middle-class English readers eager for books written in an accessible, non-Latinate style. When we examine paragraphs from technical books printed as early as 1490, we find paragraphs that exemplify the qualities stipulated by Bain nearly 400 years later. The existence of well defined and formulated paragraphs throughout the English Renaissance and the seventeenth century in a wide variety of technical bookworks ignored by literary scholars pursuing the history of Englishsuggests that the paragraph is clearly indigenous to the English composition, much more so than modern composition theory has acknowledged. This article explores example paragraphs of these first English printed technical works and begins to expand the history of the English paragraph. Further studies of later Middle English paragraphs in incunabula of practical, liturgical, and historical works will likely show the indigenous nature of the paragraph to English composition and allow scholars to see how the formation of the paragraph helped English writers over 500700 years ago create complete texts.

published proceedings

  • Journal of Technical Writing and Communication

author list (cited authors)

  • Tebeaux, E.

citation count

  • 1

complete list of authors

  • Tebeaux, Elizabeth

publication date

  • July 2011