An Open Letter To High School English Teachers

Dear English Teachers –

I try to be a good little student. I try to adhere to your guidelines. Even though I am no longer in high school, I try to avoid contractions and avoid sentence fragments. I attempt to connect my lists with commas, and keep the comma before the “and” even though newspapers tell me not to do so. However, some of your rules just do not apply in real life. For instance, starting a sentence with “for instance” or “however” or “but” is not bad. Nor is it wrong to attempt prettier prose by occasionally flouting standard rules of diction. Most importantly, you absolutely must stop with this silly business about “five-paragraph essays.”

What is the purpose of the “body paragraph?” Allow me to speculate that this structural convention is an attempt to clearly seperate thoughts and ideas into blocks. You are attempting to teach students how to structure their thoughts for maximum effectiveness, and thus the strict code of introduction, quote, analysis, transition, and the like. Certainly this format is appropriate for two or three page essays about one book. It is appropriate when a student is attempting to convey three major ideas with textual evidence. But there are many places when this format is not appropriate.

You may notice that I end each of my paragraphs with a “hook” or “transition” into the next paragraph. Then I launch into the next paragraph with additional explanation leading to a primary point; upon reaching said, I move on to the next paragraph. This format is good and appropriate because it allows both the writer and reader to clearly deliniate disparate thoughts and ideas. The eye is not tired by one long stream of text. The reader can easily jump to an appropriate section. The addition of section headers makes this navigation even easier. This is the new way of writing.

The internet is the new way of publishing. Hundreds of thousands of people keep online journals called “weblogs.” Millions post in online forums, message boards, and chat rooms. Millions more use instant messages to communicate in real time. All of these formats rely on concise bursts of ideas clearly deliniated. In short, these mediums rely on a style completely opposite to your standard five-paragraph essay.

The consequences are clear and widespread. People either rebel against the rules of grammar entirely by refusing to capitalize and use correct punctuation or they attempt to confine their online posts to your standard format. Only those who have learned differently (either through college education, by reading, or another method) can break this nasty habit. And those people are forced to endure the stupidy of a format not meant for this world.

When in life will people write essays and reports in five-paragraph form? Never in business, and rairly in academia. I have never found a college professor who demands a five-paragraph essay. I have never found a book, article, report, or study written as one. I have, however, seen online postings where paragraphs go on for pages, where there is no clear break between ideas, where obligatory quotes to useless information are thrown in because people think they should be.

This format is extremely detrimental to a new digital society that is not only prevalent but is saturated into our culture!

By all means, keep your format. Teach the five-paragraph essay. But while you’re at it, teach students to write in the same format as they read. For once, teach them to use apostrophe, instead of just reading it. Teach the writing of poetry. For goodness sake, teach them how to write basic prose!

For the good of all humankind, do this for us. Teach students that literary analysis has a purpose, but it is not the only way to write. It is not even the standard way to write — in fact, it is a method of writing that is very narrowly defined and generally not used in the real world. It is good for teaching the structure of argument, but it is only one tool among many.

If you disagree with me, take your typical news analysis and combine it into five neat paragraphs. See if you can do it, and then see if its more readable than before.

Next, try a dissertation.


Danny Silverman

P.S. – You really do spend a lot of time obsessing about line spacing and margin widths as opposed to actual content. Why is that?

7 replies on “An Open Letter To High School English Teachers”

  1. ummm…. I learned to write poetry in high school, and I find the five paragraph model useful. One for introduction, one for conclusion, and the other three frame the three main arguments of the paper. If one argument takes up several pages, by all means break it into multiple paragraphs, but I usually make some indication of starting a new idea, such as and extra space or a heading. I suppose it can’t be used for everything, but I at least try and attempt the model with each paper I write. Didn’t Shakespeare write plays in five acts?

  2. "See if you can do it, and then see if its more readable then before."

    The word ‘then’ should’ve been ‘than’. Your English teachers must not have conveyed the importance of proofreading.

  3. Bah! Anyway, its right now, so no more complaining. And Paul, since is a proxy server, the person on the other end is most likely a Windows user and probably doesn’t know what sed is. And the only reason I backtraced the IP is because 99 is the ITS subnet, and I wanted to see if it was anyone I knew. 😛 Privacy? What’s that?

Comments are closed.