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topic sentence

Definition of topic sentence

Examples of topic sentence in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'topic sentence.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

1885, in the meaning defined above

Dictionary Entries Near topic sentence

topic of discussion

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“Topic sentence.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/topic%20sentence. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.

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  • How to Write Topic Sentences | 4 Steps, Examples & Purpose

How to Write Topic Sentences | 4 Steps, Examples & Purpose

Published on July 21, 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on June 5, 2023.

How to Write Topic Sentences

Every paragraph in your paper needs a topic sentence . The topic sentence expresses what the paragraph is about. It should include two key things:

  • The  topic of the paragraph
  • The central point of the paragraph.

After the topic sentence, you expand on the point zwith evidence and examples.

To build a well-structured argument, you can also use your topic sentences to transition smoothly between paragraphs and show the connections between your points.

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Table of contents

Writing strong topic sentences, topic sentences as transitions between paragraphs, topic sentences that introduce more than one paragraph, where does the topic sentence go, frequently asked questions about topic sentences.

Topic sentences aren’t the first or the last thing you write—you’ll develop them throughout the writing process. To make sure every topic sentence and paragraph serves your argument, follow these steps.

Step 1: Write a thesis statement

The first step to developing your topic sentences is to make sure you have a strong thesis statement . The thesis statement sums up the purpose and argument of the whole paper.

Thesis statement example

Food is an increasingly urgent environmental issue, and to reduce humans’ impact on the planet, it is necessary to change global patterns of food production and consumption.

Step 2: Make an essay outline and draft topic sentences

Next, you should make an outline of your essay’s structure , planning what you want to say in each paragraph and what evidence you’ll use.

At this stage, you can draft a topic sentence that sums up the main point you want to make in each paragraph. The topic sentences should be more specific than the thesis statement, but always clearly related to it.

Topic sentence example

Research has consistently shown that the meat industry has a significant environmental impact .

Step 3: Expand with evidence

The rest of the paragraph should flow logically from the topic sentence, expanding on the point with evidence, examples, or argumentation. This helps keep your paragraphs focused: everything you write should relate to the central idea expressed in the topic sentence.

In our example, you might mention specific research studies and statistics that support your point about the overall impact of the meat industry.

Step 4: Refine your topic sentences

Topic sentences usually start out as simple statements. But it’s important to revise them as you write, making sure they match the content of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence is specific enough to give a clear sense of what to expect from the paragraph, but general enough that it doesn’t give everything away. You can think of it like a signpost: it should tell the reader which direction your argument is going in.

To make your writing stronger and ensure the connections between your paragraphs are clear and logical, you can also use topic sentences to create smooth transitions. To improve sentence flow even more, you can also utilize the paraphrase tool .

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topic sentence meaning

As you write each topic sentence, ask yourself: how does this point relate to what you wrote in the preceding paragraph? It’s often helpful to use transition words in your topic sentences to show the connections between your ideas.

Emphasize and expand

If the paragraph goes into more detail or gives another example to make the same point, the topic sentence can use words that imply emphasis or similarity (for example, furthermore , indeed , in fact , also ).

Indeed , cattle farming alone is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.

Summarize and anticipate

If the paragraph turns to a different aspect of the same subject, the topic sentence can briefly sum up the previous paragraph and anticipate the new information that will appear in this one.

While beef clearly has the most dramatic footprint, other animal products also have serious impacts in terms of emissions, water and land use.

Compare and contrast

If the paragraph makes a comparison or introduces contrasting information, the topic sentence can use words that highlight difference or conflict (for example, in contrast , however , yet , on the other hand ).

However , the environmental costs of dietary choices are not always clear-cut; in some cases, small-scale livestock farming is more sustainable than plant-based food production.

You can also imply contrast or complicate your argument by formulating the topic sentence as a question.

Is veganism the only solution, or are there more sustainable ways of producing meat and dairy?

Sometimes you can use a topic sentence to introduce several paragraphs at once.

All of the examples above address the environmental impact of meat-eating versus veganism. Together, they make up one coherent part of a larger argument, so the first paragraph could use a topic sentence to introduce the whole section.

In countries with high levels of meat consumption, a move towards plant-based diets is the most obvious route to making food more sustainable. Research has consistently shown that the meat industry has significant environmental impacts.

The topic sentence usually goes at the very start of a paragraph, but sometimes it can come later to indicate a change of direction in the paragraph’s argument.

Given this evidence of the meat industry’s impact on the planet, veganism seems like the only environmentally responsible option for consumers. However, the environmental costs of dietary choices are not always clear-cut; in some cases, small-scale livestock farming is more sustainable than plant-based food production.

In this example, the first sentence summarizes the main point that has been made so far. Then the topic sentence indicates that this paragraph will address evidence that complicates or contradicts that point.

In more advanced or creative forms of academic writing , you can play with the placement of topic sentences to build suspense and give your arguments more force. But if in doubt, to keep your research paper clear and focused, the easiest method is to place the topic sentence at the start of the paragraph.

View topic sentences in an example essay

A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main point of a paragraph . Everything else in the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.

Topic sentences help keep your writing focused and guide the reader through your argument.

In an essay or paper , each paragraph should focus on a single idea. By stating the main idea in the topic sentence, you clarify what the paragraph is about for both yourself and your reader.

The topic sentence usually comes at the very start of the paragraph .

However, sometimes you might start with a transition sentence to summarize what was discussed in previous paragraphs, followed by the topic sentence that expresses the focus of the current paragraph.

Let’s say you’re writing a five-paragraph  essay about the environmental impacts of dietary choices. Here are three examples of topic sentences you could use for each of the three body paragraphs :

  • Research has shown that the meat industry has severe environmental impacts.
  • However, many plant-based foods are also produced in environmentally damaging ways.
  • It’s important to consider not only what type of diet we eat, but where our food comes from and how it is produced.

Each of these sentences expresses one main idea – by listing them in order, we can see the overall structure of the essay at a glance. Each paragraph will expand on the topic sentence with relevant detail, evidence, and arguments.

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What Is a Topic Sentence?

  • An Introduction to Punctuation
  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

A topic sentence is a  sentence , sometimes at the beginning of a paragraph , that states or suggests the main idea (or topic ) of a paragraph.

Not all paragraphs begin with topic sentences. In some, the topic sentence appears in the middle or at the end. In others, the topic sentence is implied or absent altogether.

Examples and Observations

  • " Salva and the other boys made cows out of clay. The more cows you made, the richer you were. But they had to be fine, healthy animals. It took time to make a lump of clay look like a good cow. The boys would challenge each other to see who could make the most and best cows." (Linda Sue Park, A Long Walk to Water . Clarion, 2010)
  • " Momma bought two bolts of cloth each year for winter and summer clothes. She made my school dresses, underslips, bloomers, handkerchiefs, Bailey's shirts, shorts, her aprons, house dresses and waists from the rolls shipped to Stamps by Sears and Roebuck. . . ." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings . Random House, 1969)
  • " You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk." (George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London . Victor Gollancz, 1933)
  • " The flavor that salt imparts to food is just one of the attributes that manufacturers rely on. For them, salt is nothing less than a miracle worker in processed foods. It makes sugar taste sweeter. It adds crunch to crackers and frozen waffles. It delays spoilage so that the products can sit longer on the shelf. And, just as importantly, it masks the otherwise bitter or dull taste that hounds so many processed foods before salt is added." (Michael Moss, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us . Random House, 2013)
  • " The very idea of retirement is a relatively new invention. For most of human history, people worked until they died or were too infirm to lift a finger (at which point they died pretty fast anyway). It was the German statesman Otto von Bismarck who first floated the concept, in 1883, when he proposed that his unemployed countrymen over the age of 65 be given a pension. This move was designed to fend off Marxist agitation—and to do so on the cheap, since few Germans survived to that ripe old age." (Jessica Bruder, "The End of Retirement." Harper's , August 2014)
  • " Grandma's room I regarded as a dark den of primitive rites and practices. On Friday evenings whoever was home gathered at her door while she lit her Sabbath candles. . . ."  (E.L. Doctorow, World's Fair . Random House, 1985)
  • " Genealogy is an ancient human preoccupation. The God of Hebrew Scripture promised Abraham descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. The apostles Matthew and Luke claim that Abraham's lineage went on to include King David and eventually Jesus, though the specifics of their accounts are contradictory. Muslims trace Mohammed's line back through Abraham, to Adam and Eve." (Maud Newton, "America's Ancestry Craze." Harper's , June 2014)
  • " O nce, in a restaurant in Italy with my family, I occasioned enormous merriment, as a nineteenth-century humorist would have put it, by confusing two Italian words. I thought I had, very suavely, ordered for dessert fragoline —those lovely little wild strawberries. Instead, I seem to have asked for fagiolini —green beans. The waiter ceremoniously brought me a plate of green beans with my coffee, along with the flan and the gelato for the kids. The significant insight the mistake provided—arriving mere microseconds after the laughter of those kids, who for some reason still bring up the occasion, often—was about the arbitrary nature of language: the single 'r' rolled right makes one a master of the trattoria, an 'r' unrolled the family fool. . . ." (Adam Gopnik, "Word Magic." The New Yorker , May 26, 2014)
  • " In seventeenth-century Europe, the transformation of man into soldier took on a new form, more concerted and disciplined, and far less pleasant, than wine. New recruits and even seasoned veterans were endlessly drilled, hour after hour, until each man began to feel himself part of a single, giant fighting machine. . . ." (Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War . Henry Holt and Company, 1997)
  • " What is the appeal of train travel? Ask almost any foamer, and he or she will invariably answer, 'The romance of it!' But just what this means, they cannot really say. It's tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. . . ." (Kevin Baker, "21st Century Limited: The Lost Glory of America's Railroads." Harper's , July 2014)
  • " Because science fiction spans the spectrum from the plausible to the fanciful, its relationship with science has been both nurturing and contentious. For every author who meticulously examines the latest developments in physics or computing, there are other authors who invent 'impossible' technology to serve as a plot device (like Le Guin’s faster-than-light communicator, the ansible) or to enable social commentary, the way H. G. Wells uses his time machine to take the reader to the far future to witness the calamitous destiny of the human race." (Eileen Gunn, "Brave New Words." Smithsonian , May 2014)
  • " I passed all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. . . ." (James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times . Harper & Row, 1933)
  • " What is there about this wonderful woman? From next door, she comes striding, down the lawn, beneath the clothesline, laden with cookies she has just baked, or with baby togs she no longer needs, and one's heart goes out. Pops out. The clothesline, the rusted swing set, the limbs of the dying elm, the lilacs past bloom are lit up like rods of neon by her casual washday energy and cheer, a cheer one has done nothing to infuse." (John Updike, "One's Neighbor's Wife." Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism . Knopf, 1983)
  • " Television. Why do I watch it? The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. . . ." (J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron . Random House, 1990)
  • " Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America, whether by train or by car, has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travelers remember the event. It seems just another fair-sized town in the middle--almost the exact middle--of the continental United States. . . ." (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood . Random House, 1966)
  • " Rodeo, like baseball, is an American sport and has been around almost as long. . . ." (Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces . Viking Penguin, 1985)
  • " What a piece of work is a book! I am not talking about writing or printing. I am talking about the codex we may leaf through, that may be put away on a shelf for whole centuries and will remain there, unchanged and handy. . . ." (William Golding, A Moving Target . Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982)

Characteristics of an Effective Topic Sentence

  • "A good topic sentence is concise and emphatic . It is no longer than the idea requires, and it stresses the important word or phrase. Here, for instance, is the topic sentence which opens a paragraph about the collapse of the stock market in 1929: "The Bull Market was dead."(Frederick Lewis Allen) Notice several things. (1) Allen's sentence is brief . Not all topics can be explained in six words, but whether they take six or sixty, they should be phrased in no more words than are absolutely necessary. (2) The sentence is clear and strong: you understand exactly what Allen means. (3) It places the keyword—'dead'—at the end, where it gets heavy stress and leads naturally into what will follow. . . . (4) The sentence stands first in the paragraph. This is where topic sentences generally belong: at or near the beginning." (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing . Oxford Univ. Press, 1988)

Positioning a Topic Sentence

"If you want readers to see your point immediately, open with the topic sentence . This strategy can be particularly useful in letters of application or in argumentative writing. . . . "When specific details lead up to a generalization, putting the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph makes sense. . . . "Occasionally a paragraph's main idea is so obvious that it does not need to be stated explicitly in a topic sentence." (Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook . Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)

Guidelines for Composing Topic Sentences

"The topic sentence is the most important sentence in your paragraph. Carefully worded and restricted, it helps you generate and control your information. An effective topic sentence also helps readers grasp your main idea quickly. As you draft your paragraphs, pay close attention to the following three guidelines:

  • Make sure you provide a topic sentence. . . .
  • Put your topic sentence first.
  • Be sure your topic sentence is focused. If restricted, a topic sentence discusses only one central idea. A broad or unrestricted topic sentence leads to a shaky, incomplete paragraph for two reasons:
  • The paragraph will not contain enough information to support the topic sentence .
  • A broad topic sentence will not summarize or forecast specific information in the paragraph."

(Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work , 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)

Testing for Topic Sentences

"When testing your article for topic sentences , you should be able to look at each paragraph and say what the topic sentence is. Having said it, look at all the other sentences in the paragraph and test them to make sure they support it. . . .

"If you find that you have come up with the same topic sentence more than once, you have two paragraphs doing the same work. Cut one of them out.

"If you find a paragraph that has several sentences that don't support the topic sentence, see if all the outlaw sentences support some other topic sentence and turn the one paragraph into two." (Gary Provost, "How to Test Your Articles for the 8 Essentials of Nonfiction." Handbook of Magazine Article Writing , ed. by Jean M. Fredette. Writer's Digest Books, 1988)

Frequency of Topic Sentences

"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."  (Richard Braddock, "The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose." Research in the Teaching of English . Winter 1974)

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topic sentence meaning

What is a Topic Sentence? (Definition, Examples, How to Use)

Topic sentence

What is a topic sentence ? A topic sentence , the first sentence of a paragraph, presents the main concept discussed in the paragraph. It must contain sufficient information to support numerous examples and subtopics without being too broad to obscure the essay’s intended purpose. The remaining sentences in the paragraph will act as supporting statements, providing evidence and examples for the main idea.

Topic sentence

Importance of topic sentences

In essays or articles , where subjects can shift from one paragraph to another, a topic phrase is particularly crucial. The topic sentences, superficially, may seem to serve the purpose of only acting like the initial or introductory sentence of a paragraph. But it has numerous other purposes that make it an important part of essays.

  • Topic sentences link paragraphs together to improve the sentence flow and make reading easier. When topic sentences are not used, switching between paragraphs can feel abrupt and jarring to the reader. Authors can maintain the rhythm of their writing using topic sentences and facilitate smooth transitions.
  • Topic sentences show the reader a sample of what to expect from the paragraph. The readers can determine from the topic sentence whether the paragraph will comprise a narrative, a list, anecdotal evidence, statistical data, persuasive opinions, or some other form of evidence.
  • If two conflicting viewpoints are presented in a single paragraph, authors can use more than one topic sentence to inform the readers about the changes in the main concept. For example, paragraphs that “compare and contrast” require more than one topic sentence. In these kinds of paragraphs, authors can start with a topic sentence introducing the first idea and follow it up with proof or evidence supporting the idea. Then they can introduce the second topic sentence conveying the opposing viewpoint, followed by proof or evidence supporting it.

Topic sentence

Different types of topic sentences

The different types of topic sentences include:

Simple statement

This topic sentence is used by authors to make a general observation or statement and then elaborate on it in the body of the paragraph.

New studies are emerging indicating the link between climate change and the emergence of numerous new virus strains.

Interrogative or question

This is used by writers in less formal settings. Authors can start a paragraph using implicit or explicit questions related to the topic of discussion to engage the readers.

How many nations are ready to adapt to rising sea levels?

Complex topic sentences are used when the author is discussing a complicated concept that encompasses multiple ideas. Such topic sentences cover more than a single core idea.

Although many people believe that a mother bird will reject its chick if it is touched by humans, the truth is that birds do not abandon their babies after humans touch them.

Authors can use their topic sentences to make explicit demands or pleas to their readers. This will be helpful in breaking the monotony of the essay.

Let’s look at the data from the latest research.

Purely transitional

Though topic sentences are generally responsible for facilitating a smooth transition between paragraphs, occasionally they are purely transitional. These function best when the main topic shifts abruptly by highlighting the switch.

But not everybody agrees.

Pivot sentences are not found at the beginning of a paragraph but rather in the middle, indicating a change in the topic. Conjunctive adverbs like however, furthermore, and meanwhile are frequently used with them.

However, the undisputed king of tennis, Roger Federer, was dethroned in 2008 at Wimbledon.

How to create good topic sentences

A good topic sentence can be created using some simple steps:

1. Determine the key point of your essay

Writers should first form an understanding of the topic of the essay and then create topic sentences to attract the attention of readers. Constructing a good thesis statement can assist the writer in forming better topic sentences.

2. Have an outline for the essay

The author should form a plan or roadmap beforehand on the topics they want to discuss in a paragraph and the evidence they want to use as supporting statements.

3. Be coherent and clear

Writers should make their topic sentences clear and comprehensible so that the reader can form a clear understanding of what to expect in the paragraph.

4. Share opinions

It is advisable to share the opinion or viewpoint of the author in the topic sentence to attract the attention of the reader. Authors should also refrain from writing obvious facts in the topic sentences.

5. Use specific wordings

The topic sentences ought to be precise enough so that the authors can use a few sentences in the paragraph to support them.

6. Transitions should be added between paragraphs

To give the essay or paper a throughline, authors can create topic sentences that refer to the prior paragraph. A topic sentence can make a reference to the preceding paragraph while introducing the next part by using transitional words.

7. Use new, relevant information

Instead of using an obvious fact that everybody knows as the topic sentence, authors can give new information. It is also important to present them in an interesting way.

8. Create a compound or complex topic statement

Compound or complex topic statements feel advanced and stronger. Authors can create such topic statements to add a high level of sophistication to their text.

Many beginner writers and students confuse thesis statements with topic sentences. In essence, thesis statements establish the major idea discussed in the entire essay or paper, as opposed to topic sentences, which introduce the central concept of a paragraph.

Both of these sentences are responsible for giving the readers a sample of what to expect, but in entirely different capacities. Suppose a person is writing a thesis about the different compounds present in coffee and the health benefits it offers.

The thesis statement will be a generalized statement indicating that there are numerous compounds in coffee that benefit the health of humans. But the topic sentence of each paragraph will introduce any single health benefit or compound present in the coffee.

Topic sentences are typically found at the beginning of a paragraph. But this does not mean that they cannot be placed elsewhere in the paragraph. In some cases, when the details discussed can be summarized into a general statement, topic sentences can be included at the end.

Similarly, in some paragraphs where multiple concepts are discussed, topic sentences may be used in the middle of the paragraph. The placement depends on the number of topics being discussed and the way they are discussed.

  • Merriam Webster – topic sentence – Definition
  • Wikipedia – Topic sentence
  • wikiHow – How to Write a Good Topic Sentence
  • Scribbr – How to Write Topic Sentences | 4 Steps, Examples & Purpose

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About the author

Dalia Y.: Dalia is an English Major and linguistics expert with an additional degree in Psychology. Dalia has featured articles on Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, Grammarly, and many more. She covers English, ESL, and all things grammar on GrammarBrain.

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topic sentence meaning

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Topic sentences and signposts make an essay's claims clear to a reader. Good essays contain both.  Topic sentences   reveal the main point of a paragraph. They show the relationship of each paragraph to the essay's thesis, telegraph the point of a paragraph, and tell your reader what to expect in the paragraph that follows. Topic sentences also establish their relevance right away, making clear why the points they're making are important to the essay's main ideas. They argue rather than report.  Signposts , as their name suggests, prepare the reader for a change in the argument's direction. They show how far the essay's argument has progressed vis-ˆ-vis the claims of the thesis. 

Topic sentences and signposts occupy a middle ground in the writing process. They are neither the first thing a writer needs to address (thesis and the broad strokes of an essay's structure are); nor are they the last (that's when you attend to sentence-level editing and polishing). Topic sentences and signposts deliver an essay's structure and meaning to a reader, so they are useful diagnostic tools to the writer—they let you know if your thesis is arguable—and essential guides to the reader

Forms of Topic Sentences

 Sometimes topic sentences are actually two or even three sentences long. If the first makes a claim, the second might reflect on that claim, explaining it further. Think of these sentences as asking and answering two critical questions: How does the phenomenon you're discussing operate? Why does it operate as it does?

There's no set formula for writing a topic sentence. Rather, you should work to vary the form your topic sentences take. Repeated too often, any method grows wearisome. Here are a few approaches.

Complex sentences.   Topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph frequently combine with a transition from the previous paragraph. This might be done by writing a sentence that contains both subordinate and independent clauses, as in the example below.

 Although  Young Woman with a Water Pitcher  depicts an unknown, middle-class woman at an ordinary task, the image is more than "realistic"; the painter [Vermeer] has imposed his own order upon it to strengthen it. 

This sentence employs a useful principle of transitions: always move from old to new information.  The subordinate clause (from "although" to "task") recaps information from previous paragraphs; the independent clauses (starting with "the image" and "the painter") introduce the new information—a claim about how the image works ("more than Ôrealistic'") and why it works as it does (Vermeer "strengthens" the image by "imposing order"). 

Questions.   Questions, sometimes in pairs, also make good topic sentences (and signposts).  Consider the following: "Does the promise of stability justify this unchanging hierarchy?" We may fairly assume that the paragraph or section that follows will answer the question. Questions are by definition a form of inquiry, and thus demand an answer. Good essays strive for this forward momentum.

Bridge sentences.   Like questions, "bridge sentences" (the term is John Trimble's) make an excellent substitute for more formal topic sentences. Bridge sentences indicate both what came before and what comes next (they "bridge" paragraphs) without the formal trappings of multiple clauses: "But there is a clue to this puzzle." 

Pivots.   Topic sentences don't always appear at the beginning of a paragraph. When they come in the middle, they indicate that the paragraph will change direction, or "pivot." This strategy is particularly useful for dealing with counter-evidence: a paragraph starts out conceding a point or stating a fact ("Psychologist Sharon Hymer uses the term Ônarcissistic friendship' to describe the early stage of a friendship like the one between Celie and Shug"); after following up on this initial statement with evidence, it then reverses direction and establishes a claim ("Yet ... this narcissistic stage of Celie and Shug's relationship is merely a transitory one. Hymer herself concedes . . . "). The pivot always needs a signal, a word like "but," "yet," or "however," or a longer phrase or sentence that indicates an about-face. It often needs more than one sentence to make its point.

Signposts operate as topic sentences for whole sections in an essay. (In longer essays, sections often contain more than a single paragraph.) They inform a reader that the essay is taking a turn in its argument: delving into a related topic such as a counter-argument, stepping up its claims with a complication, or pausing to give essential historical or scholarly background. Because they reveal the architecture of the essay itself, signposts remind readers of what the essay's stakes are: what it's about, and why it's being written. 

Signposting can be accomplished in a sentence or two at the beginning of a paragraph or in whole paragraphs that serve as transitions between one part of the argument and the next. The following example comes from an essay examining how a painting by Monet,  The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train,  challenges Zola's declarations about Impressionist art. The student writer wonders whether Monet's Impressionism is really as devoted to avoiding "ideas" in favor of direct sense impressions as Zola's claims would seem to suggest. This is the start of the essay's third section:

It is evident in this painting that Monet found his Gare Saint-Lazare motif fascinating at the most fundamental level of the play of light as well as the loftiest level of social relevance.  Arrival of a Train  explores both extremes of expression. At the fundamental extreme, Monet satisfies the Impressionist objective of capturing the full-spectrum effects of light on a scene.

 The writer signposts this section in the first sentence, reminding readers of the stakes of the essay itself with the simultaneous references to sense impression ("play of light") and intellectual content ("social relevance"). The second sentence follows up on this idea, while the third serves as a topic sentence for the paragraph. The paragraph after that starts off with a topic sentence about the "cultural message" of the painting, something that the signposting sentence predicts by not only reminding readers of the essay's stakes but also, and quite clearly, indicating what the section itself will contain. 

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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  1. Topic sentence Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster">Topic sentence Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

    Merriam-Webster unabridged. The meaning of TOPIC SENTENCE is a sentence that states the main thought of a paragraph or of a larger unit of discourse and is usually placed at or near the beginning.

  2. Topic Sentences | 4 Steps, Examples & Purpose">How to Write Topic Sentences | 4 Steps, Examples & Purpose

    Every paragraph in your paper needs a topic sentence. The topic sentence expresses what the paragraph is about. It should include two key things: The topic of the paragraph; The central point of the paragraph. After the topic sentence, you expand on the point zwith evidence and examples.

  3. Topic Sentence Definition, Examples, and Guidelines - ThoughtCo">Topic Sentence Definition, Examples, and Guidelines - ThoughtCo

    A topic sentence is a sentence, sometimes at the beginning of a paragraph, that states or suggests the main idea (or topic) of a paragraph. Not all paragraphs begin with topic sentences. In some, the topic sentence appears in the middle or at the end. In others, the topic sentence is implied or absent altogether.

  4. Topic Sentences: How Do You Write a Great One? - Grammarly">Topic Sentences: How Do You Write a Great One? - Grammarly

    Updated on June 2, 2022 Students. A topic sentence, usually the first sentence in a paragraph, introduces the main idea of that paragraph and sets its tone. A topic sentence is especially important in essays, where topics change from paragraph to paragraph. This makes knowing how to write a topic sentence crucial for any student or writer.

  5. Topic Sentence? (Definition, Examples, How to Use)">What is a Topic Sentence? (Definition, Examples, How to Use)

    What is a topic sentence? A topic sentence, the first sentence of a paragraph, presents the main concept discussed in the paragraph. It must contain sufficient information to support numerous examples and subtopics without being too broad to obscure the essay's intended purpose.

  6. Topic Sentences and Signposting | Harvard College Writing Center">Topic Sentences and Signposting | Harvard College Writing Center

    Topic sentences reveal the main point of a paragraph. They show the relationship of each paragraph to the essay's thesis, telegraph the point of a paragraph, and tell your reader what to expect in the paragraph that follows. Topic sentences also establish their relevance right away, making clear why the points they're making are important to ...

  7. Topic sentence - Definition, Meaning & Synonyms | Vocabulary.com">Topic sentence - Definition, Meaning & Synonyms | Vocabulary.com

    Definitions of topic sentence. noun. a statement that provides the main idea of a paragraph. see more. see less. type of: sentence. a string of words satisfying the grammatical rules of a language.