Words on Writing: P

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One sentence or a group of sentences that stands alone as a compositional unit. A paragraph can be defined various ways:

By its components: A paragraph typically contains a topic sentence and multiple supporting sentences.

By its content: A paragraph typically develops one main idea.

By its typography: A paragraph typically begins with an indent, outdent, or simple line break.

By its structure: A paragraph typically develops according to a coherent structure: chronological order, logical progression, spatial sequence, or some other organizational scheme.

By its purpose: A paragraph typically has one of these purposes: to describe, to persuade, to create a desire to turn the page.

To build powerful paragraphs, heed The Little English Handbook author, Edward Corbett, who urges writers to “take care” of “the three most persistent and common problems that beset the composition of written paragraphs,” namely, “unity, coherence, and adequate development.”[1]


The repetition of grammatical structure, sound, meter, meaning, etc., within a sentence or from one sentence to another. In Roland put on his heaviest coat, his thickest gloves, his widest muffler, and his warmest hat, the structure [his <adjective+est> ] is repeated four times, creating parallelism within the sentence.


See verb particle.

parts of speech

Ask a traditional linguist and a modern linguist to name the parts of speech, and you’ll get shockingly different lists.

Traditional parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and interjections (give or take a part).
Modern parts of speech (form-class words): nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

See also structure-class words. For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

passive voice

The voice in which the sentence’s subject receives the verb’s action instead of performing it. Passive voice is indicated by a passive marker, namely, the combination of an auxiliary be‑verb (was) and the past-participle (‑ed) form of the main verb. In The sidewalk was shoveled, the subject (sidewalk) receives the action. Typical sidewalk if you ask me.

Compare active voice. For more, see the chapter “To Be or Not To Be” in Word Up!


A MEter conSISTing of FIVE METrical FEET.

periodic structure

A structure (of a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or section) in which the emphatic information appears at the end. A classical periodic sentence comprises a series of clauses that build to the main clause, leading to a … a … a climax. No matter how much Mandy begged to stay inside, no matter how loudly she pleaded, no matter how pitifully she wept, her mother—without a single sign of sympathy—continued to insist that she go outside with her friends and play in the snow.

For more, see the chapter “The Last Word” in Word Up!

personal pronoun

A pronoun with attributes related to grammatical person (first-person, second-person, third-person): I, you, we, she, herself, their, it, its.

For more, see the chapters “Her and I: How to Banish Painful Personal-Pronoun Pairings” and “To Each Their Own” in Word Up!

phrasal adjective

See compound modifier.

phrasal verb

A multiple-word verb (chip in, drop out of) that has an idiomatic meaning, a meaning different from that of the individual words (chip in means “help”; drop out of means “quit”).

The New York Times crossword puzzle wouldn’t be the New York Times crossword puzzle without phrasal verbs. Examples:

  • The clue Give _____ to (approve) yields the answer “anod.” (Give a nod to is a phrasal verb meaning “approve.”)
  • The clue Long (for) yields the answer “hope.” (Long for and hope for are synonymous phrasal verbs.)
  • The clue Distribute, with “out” yields the answer “parcel.” (Parcel out is a phrasal verb meaning “distribute.”)

See also verb particle.


A group of two or more related words that contains no subject-verb relationship: neophyte driver or at high noon or barreling down the icy street.

Compare clause.


A structure-class word (from, with, over, into, etc.) that typically appears immediately before—in pre-position to—a noun phrase. The preposition connects the noun phrase to another word in the sentence. In The mug of coffee dissipated welcome warmth into Hubert’s frozen fingers, the preposition into connects the noun phrase Hubert’s frozen fingers back to the verb dissipated. The prepositional phrase into Hubert’s frozen fingers modifies the verb dissipated, describing how and where the dissipating happened. The prepositional phrase, as a whole, plays the role of an adverb in this sentence; the word into plays the role of a preposition.

(The words identified here as prepositions may also play other roles, in which case they are classified differently.)

For more, see the chapters “You Don’t Know From Prepositions” and “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up! 


A structure-class word (he, she, it, this, those, that, etc.) that can substitute for a noun or noun phrase. Unique among the structure-class words, pronouns can change their form (he changes to him or his, for example). In spite of this commonality with form-class words, though, pronouns are classified as structure-class words because they are defined by their function; they exist to create relationships between words.

Pronouns come in lots of types: personal, relative, reflexive, indefinite, etc.

(The words identified here as pronouns may also play other roles, in which case they are classified differently.)

For more on form-class words and structure-class words, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up! 

prototype word

A word that belongs to only one class. Sidewalk is a prototype word, a prototypical noun. You would not normally use it as a verb (sidewalked), adverb (sidewalkly), or adjective (sidewalkest).

Shovel, on the other hand, is not a prototype noun. It slips naturally into the role of either noun or verb: You need a shovel (noun) to shovel (verb).

See also auxiliary, form-class words, structure-class words.

A-Z page

This is not a list of all words about writing—you’d be scrolling all day. These definitions evolved while I was writing  Word Up! I enjoyed what I learned and wanted to share it.

Get the full glossary and more in the book: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)

[1] Edward P. J. Corbett, The Little English Handbook, 3rd ed. (New York: Wiley, 1980), 85.

Last modified: November 6, 2014

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