The KISS Grammar Workbooks Back to February Menu

Writing a Point-by-Point Paragraphs (Semicolons)
Notes for Parents and Teachers

Cats and Dogs  1YM; IG6 L6.6
Two Portraits by Gainsborough  IG11 L6.6

     This can be a very helpful writing exercise, even though it requires students to use only one semicolon. (Perhaps the number of sentences/exercises that students do is not as important as are the number of times and different contexts in which they see a grammatical principle at work.) As always, there are ways of extending and modifying this exercise.
     One could, for example, ask the students to extend the paragraph by using "only" compound sentences joined by semicolons:

Cats are indoor pets; dogs are more likely to be outdoors. Mysha, our cat, loved to sit on a chair inside; Fortune, our dog, preferred to go fishing. Mysha once ran from the bathroom to the front door, trailing toilet paper behind him; Fortune, however, would run with me for miles outside. Both of my favorite pets liked to dig -- Mysha dug up our houseplants; Fortune dug up our yard.
For my taste, the semicolons throughout the paragraph create a stilted, somewhat mechanical prose, but it might make a good exercise.
     An obvious writing extension is to have the students rewrite the paragraph in block-by-block format. If you have them do so, direct their attention to the use of transitional words, which will primarily be adverb, adverbial phrases, or adverbial clauses. Also, encourage students to add sentences, as in the example below. Perhaps most important of all, be sure that they include a clear transition from one block to the other, as in "Unlike our cat, . . . ."
     Cats are indoor pets; dogs are more likely to be outdoors. Mysha, our cat, loved to sit above my head on the back of my favorite chair while I watched T.V. When they run, cats usually make short sprints. The longest run I ever saw Mysha make was from our bathroom to the front door. He had grabbed the toilet paper in the bathroom and left a trail of paper behind him. The only time cats usually dig is after they go to the bathroom. Mysha, however, dug up the dirt in our houseplants. Unlike our cat, our dog Fortune much preferred to go fishing and run around the river banks. When I practiced for the cross country team, Fortune ran with me for miles. At first he would bound off in one direction or another, inspecting the bushes, bugs, and whatever else he could find, but as the miles passed, he would fall into place behind me. When we got home, he would sometimes dig up one of his holes in our yard to find a bone to gnaw on.
If you try a few exercises such as this, you will begin to see the advantages and disadvantages of point-by-point vs. block-by-block organization.  As the number of examples and details in a block-by-block format increase, the points in the comparison tend to grow apart and become lost. But in creating a point-by-point draft, we are often so focussed in looking for the points of comparison that we may find it difficult to develop any of the points in detail. (That seven-slot STM is at play again here.) Which format one should ultimately use probably depends on one's purpose in writing. If the comparison itself is important, as in suggesting which car a person should buy, then point-by-point is probably better. But for an entertaining essay, block-by-block works fine.
     Perhaps the most extensive version of this exercise is to have students expand the paragraph into an essay. Thus the main sentence becomes the thesis, and each of the "points" becomes a topic sentence for a paragraph:
 
     [Introduction] Cats are indoor pets; dogs are more likely to be outdoors.

     Cats love to sit and watch; dogs prefer to race and roam. [Supporting sentences]

     When it comes to running, cats are sprinters; dogs are distance runners. [Supporting sentences]

     Both animals dig -- cats dig in litter boxes after they have eaten, processed, and eliminated the remains of their food; dogs dig to bury a future meal. [Supporting sentences]

     [Concluding paragraph]

The preceding is a format for a five paragraph essay, but it too can easily (in some cases) be extended to six or more paragraphs by developing a topic sentence with more details and splitting the paragraph in two. I could, for example, easily write a paragraph about cats as sprinters and follow it with one on dogs as distance runners. [Based on twenty-five years of teaching college Freshmen composition, I would suggest that this type of exercise, developing an essay from within by expansion, can be very important. Many weak writers simply jump from general idea to general idea without expanding and illustrating the ideas with specific examples. When required to write longer essays, they simply add more general ideas.]
     The difficult part of this exercise is the student's choice of topic. Even at the college level, students often choose a topic that they know very little about, and then they wonder why they cannot write a decent essay. To help with this problem, teachers who intend to have students expand the paragraph into an essay might want to add optional topics such as "My Two Sisters (Brothers)," "My Two Pets," and "My Two Favorite Hobbies (Sports)"

     I would like to add here several examples of paragraphs (and/or essays) that were written for this exercise by students.  Please give the paragraph or essay a title and e-mail it to me at evavra@pct.edu. In the subject line, or in the message, state "Exercise for November 23 of Seventh Grade." (To remind me what it is for.) Include the student's name [First name only is acceptable, if you wish.], city and state (or country), and age (or grade level).