Paragraphing Conveys Meaning

Blog post titles don’t get much cleverer and attention-getting than this post’s, I know. But tone down your excitement and think with me for a minute. I’m writing a book right now. A secret book. A hard book to write. I’m slaving over every sentence. And I just found myself going back and forth in Microsoft Word over whether and where to break a particular paragraph.

Why should I care?

Because paragraphing conveys meaning. We customarily think of “words” as not only the most basic unit of meaning, but pretty well the only unit. A sentence means what all the words in it mean—right? 1+7+19=27, right?

But consider these two sentences:

1. The dog hit the cat.

2. The cat hit the dog.

Quite obviously, these sentences mean two very different things. But they use all the same words. To be super basic here about something you know intuitively, the word order conveys meaning, not just the words. In English, we customarily use a Subject, Verb, Object structure. Every English speaker knows, by virtue of its place in the sentence, that the animal that comes first is the one doing the hitting. The animal that comes second does the being-hit. In English, 1+7+19 does not equal the same thing as as 19+7+1. Words are not the only level of meaning.

In fact, words don’t have any meaning without a context. That context is often some sort of sentence.

Likewise, one sentence can bear a wide range of meanings. It makes a big difference whether the cat and dog hit each other in a dog-and-cat race, in a Saturday morning cartoon, in a story about trained snipers in a dog and cat war, in a canine tennis game in which rolled-up kittens served as balls (sorry, cat lovers)—the list could be as long as your creativity.

But the more sentences you add—the more context you create—the fewer meanings a given sentence can carry. That’s why paragraphing is important to written (of course) communication. It provides one more tool for writers wishing to convey meaning via sentences. A paragraph ties a sentence to other sentences in the context and separates it from yet other sentences, strongly implying that the sentence’s meaning is linked to a particular set of sentences (the others in the paragraph) more than to other sentences (the ones in the next paragraph).

If every sentence is its own paragraph—and here’s where I’m going with this—you imply that every sentence is, to some degree, a separate statement. You suggest to Bible readers, for example, that a given verse can be safely “prooftexted,” ripped from its context and made to say something that, if you would just look at the sentences around it, it simply can’t be saying.

Try it: “The righteous falls seven times and rises again” (Prov 24:16). What does that mean? Christians often quote this when talking about spiritual failure.

But try it in the context implied by the paragraphing in the ESV:

Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.38.14 PM

The ESV paragraphing links this sentence not only with the other clause in verse 16 (“but the wicked stumble in times of calamity”) but with the previous verse, verse 15. If they’re right, and I’m sure they are, this verse has to be talking, at least primarily, about physical falling and not spiritual falling. If every verse in Proverbs is a separate paragraph, the way most older Bibles I’ve seen do their typesetting, I’m less likely to notice verse 16’s connection to the previous part of the sentence. (I would hope that the “For” at the beginning would tip me off, though.)

If what your Bible says matters to you, paragraphing ought to matter, too.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Paragraphing Conveys Meaning”

  1. Interesting. I first noticed that verse sitting in the church service at BJU one Sunday morning. This was back in the days of asking girls out via the note system. The night before I had received my seventh “shoot down” in a row. Guess how I [mis]applied the verse? And what happened next?

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