Braddock: “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose”

Braddock, Richard. “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose” Research in the Teaching of English. 8.3 (1974): 287-302. Web.

103 TopoI reactions


topic sentences, composition textbooks, pedagogy, 

Bibliographic notes:

Words: ~4,000-4,500 words

Pages: 15

References: 7

Author Affiliation: N.S.W. Institute of Technology & University of Iowa

One-sentence summary:

Professionally written essays in popular journals do not conform to the kinds of rules for topic sentences that composition textbooks call for.


Braddok tests composition textbook definitions of topic sentences against published writing. Braddok’s aim is to methodically identify topic sentences in a corpus consisting of a corpus of 25 popular journals such as the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, etc.  He uses the technical term “T-unit” (essentially an independent clause) and outlining methods to analyze the corpus’ prose and to classify topic sentences into four categories. Braddock finds that “simple topic sentences” (298) — the kind of topic sentence typically taught to students as desirable — is not as common as indicated by textbooks. In fact, “considerably fewer than half of all the paragraphs in the essays have even explicit topic sentences, to say nothing of simple topic sentences” (299).

 “Teachers and textbook writers should exercise caution in making statements about the frequency with which contemporary professional writers use simple or even explicit topic sentences in expository paragraphs. It is abundantly clear that students should not be told that professional writers usually begin their paragraphs with topic sentences” (301).

“This sample of contemporary professional writing did not support the claims of textbook writers about the frequency and location of topic sentences in professional writing. That does not, of course, necessarily mean the same findings would hold for scientific and technical writing or other types of exposition. Moreover, it does not all mean that composition teachers should stop showing their students how to develop paragraphs from clear topic sentences. Far from it. In my opinion, often the writing in the 25 essays would have been clearer and more comfortable to read if the paragraphs had presented more explicit topic sentences” (301).

First entrant in my “41 Braddock Award WInners in 41 Days Challenge.” Wish me luck.

In course work this semester, we’re reading a handful of histories (North, Phelps, Crowley, Mailloux) about the early disciplinary accretion of composition, and Braddock’s work here maps well to the tensions and movements outlined in those texts. Specifically, Braddock’s work seems to anticipate Stephen North’s critique of “lore” as a driving force in the (pseudo-) scholarship of early composition research. Braddock’s warning here seems to be against overstatement or overgeneralization (in this case of the use and structure of topic sentences), rather than a critique of particular pedagogical frameworks (cf. James Berlin, “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” 1988). The methodical study presented here is followed seven years later by the methodical, cognitivist approach to of Flower and Hayes in their “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” (Braddock ’74, Flower & Hayes ’81, Berlin ’88.)

Septennial coincidences aside, the significance of this work lies in its author’s eponymous connection to the “article of the year” award as recognized by the CCC: The Braddock Award. Jana Rosinski has delved into the Braddock Award winners in prior work, and I’m interested as well in the patterns that may surface as I read this series at different scales.

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