© 2 Oct 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Three ruminations on a concept dependent on literacy.


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Paragraphs in History

The word “‍paragraph‍” is of Greek origin; para- is a prefix meaning “‍beside‍” and graphein means “‍to write‍” Graphein presumably came from the Proto-Indo-European gerbh meaning “‍scratch‍” or “‍carve‍”. The Greeks used the word to refer to marks in the margins of text used to visually indicate a break in the content or style of the document.

We have gone away from side-markings to denote such breaks almost entirely, but have expanded on the kinds of breaks marked. Indentation, vertical gaps, horizontal rules, dingbats, section and chapter headings, bold and small-caps leading words, initials… the typographical distinctions used today vary widely. Margin notation, when present, is usually used today to draw attention to summary information Margin notes: used for summary information. or to keep parenthetical comments Technically I ought to say “‍parenthesis‍” instead of “‍parenthetical comment‍”, but I observe that the word “‍parenthesis‍” is increasingly used to refer to the glyphs “‍(‍” and “‍)‍” instead of the material inserted between them. from disturbing the flow of the text.

Paragraphs in Markup Languages

Document markup languages Markup languages can also describe other structured data besides documents; XML, SGML, YAML, and the like fit this category. are techniques for textually describing, rather than displaying, both the structure and the content of a document. Is use them here as proxy for any structured representation of a document, including things like word processor memory- and file-formats.

Document markup languages can choose to represent groups of content either within containers or between breaks. The former might be pictured like A B while the latter might be A ¶ B instead. The major document markup languages that I know (TEΧ, HTML4, HTML5, and DocBook) all treat paragraphs as containers. For larger-scale breaks like sections and chapters they are split (TEΧ and HTML4 treat them as breaks, HTML5 and DocBook as containers). Containers seem to be increasing in popularity because they work better algorithmically for some document processing tasks Example: for cross references like “‍see pages 13–14‍” the beginning and ending page can be discovered by referencing a single container. For breaks we’d need to reference the beginning and ending break, which may get us in trouble if we later add another break in between. and because they are seen as matching the semantic model of text more closely.

When you have container paragraphs, however, you are faced with deciding what kinds of things can be placed inside a paragraph. Clearly paragraphs don’t belong inside other paragraphs; but what about

and other similar not-inline elements? What about things that can contain paragraphs themselves, like block quotations? After quoting

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to […]

is it appropriate to continue the same paragraph, or ought I to have concluded this one prior to quoting The Hobbit?

In practice, markup languages do place restrictions on what can go inside a paragraph, and they are often awkwardly restrictive. HTML doesn’t let much of anything inside paragraphs except in-line formatting, so I faked the list-inside-paragraph effect above using conditional indentation.

Paragraphs in Communication

I have recently been reading the The Book of Nephi, the Son of Nephi, Who Was the Son of Helaman More commonly called “‍Third Nephi‍”. on my computer in a straight-line text format with no chapter or verse markers and have been inserting paragraphs, quotation marks, and other annotations as I go. One of the things that has become clear to me as I do so is that extended passages are not written with paragraph-like splits in mind. Sure, you can put them in if you want to but how many is more-or-less arbitrary. Consider, for example, chapter 1 verse 22 through chapter 2 verse 10. How many paragraphs would you make this passage?

This experience has caused me to reflect on the oddity that is paragraphed communication. Why ought it be the case that any breaks exist? Is not a steady flow of thought just as valid as having statements followed by brief exposition or having regularly spaced summaries or topical shifts? I find reading text without paragraphs to be tedious and unpleasant, but I can’t help but wonder if the paragraphing ultimatum tints the content, mood, and message of text.

Of course, the other side of paragraphs as communication is well-explored by “‍poets‍” who discovered that

with unExpected breaks
      appears to Have


Clearly there is something communicated by paragraphing.

What, exactly, is it?

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