Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

How to write great topic sentences. Fanilects. Throwawayable.

Episode Summary

949. Topic sentences aren't just for students! We have real-life, grown-up examples to help you write better business proposals, blog posts, and more. Plus, we have fun looking at fanilects and weird words such as "unputdownable," "throwawayable," and "untalkaboutable."

Episode Notes

949. Topic sentences aren't just for students! This week, we have real-life, grown-up examples — and you'll finally understand why that concept your English teacher kept talking about will help you write better business proposals, blog posts, and more. Plus, we have fun looking at fanilects (you read that right, not familects) and weird words such as "unputdownable," "throwawayable," and "untalkaboutable."

Cohesive paragraph example from the Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services:

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Episode Transcription

How To Write a Good Topic Sentence

by Susan Herman

As we recently discussed in our tight writing segment in episode 940, it is important to have a strong BLUF (bottom line up front) in your writing and to support it with clarifying details. Let the reader know from the beginning what your purpose is, especially the "so what," which you may remember from our recent interview with communication pro Matt Abrahams. The same is true of paragraphs. Think of each paragraph as a mini-essay. You want your readers to know what you plan to present in each paragraph, so starting out with a strong topic sentence is important. It helps you and your readers understand the structure and direction of your writing.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we talk about topic sentences, we're going to talk about fanilects and whether something can be throwawayable.

According to our trusty friends Merriam-Webster and Collins Dictionary, a topic sentence usually comes at the beginning of a paragraph (or longer section) and expresses the main or essential point of that paragraph or section. Generally speaking, you should stick to one main topic per paragraph; that will keep your writing organized and make it more digestible for your readers.

According to the Touro University Writing Center, "the topic sentence is the most important sentence in a paragraph. Sometimes referred to as a focus sentence, the topic sentence helps organize the paragraph by summarizing the information in the paragraph." It lets readers know what's coming in the rest of the paragraph (and readers like that). Just make sure you follow through with what you're promising by including supporting details for your topic sentence in each paragraph. 

Also, keep in mind the difference between a thesis statement and a topic sentence. If you are writing something longer, like an essay, thesis, or other academic paper, you will likely include a thesis statement at the beginning that will summarize the entire piece versus just one paragraph. Touro describes the thesis statement as "… a road map that will tell the reader or listener where you are going with this information or how you are treating it." Each paragraph that follows, then, should contain a topic sentence that relates back to and supports the overall thesis statement. 

Here's one way to look at it: Every topic sentence has a topic and a controlling idea. The topic is, well, the main subject you're writing about. The controlling idea  (or ideas) then steer that topic in a certain direction. According to the Rochester Institute of Technology Supporting English Acquisition webpage, "The controlling idea is the point of the paragraph. It guides the ideas that provide support for the paragraph and limits the scope of the paragraph." Here are some examples:

Let's say our thesis statement is "The Grammar Girl podcast is a useful tool for learning about writing and the English language." The topic sentence for our first paragraph then might be "I love Grammar Girl's podcast because it provides real-life examples and practical tips." The topic is "Grammar Girl's podcast," and the controlling ideas are "real-life examples and practical tips." So this prepares the reader for the rest of the paragraph or section, which might provide some examples of "real life examples" and "practical tips."

For our second example, let's say our thesis statement is "Getting a kitten will change your life." (Yes, our chaotic kitten is back!) Our first topic sentence then might be "My kitten has two modes: feline tornado and sleep." The topic is "my kitten," and the controlling ideas are "two modes: feline tornado and sleep." This paragraph could then provide adorable examples of the kitten's tornado-like behavior and how much he sleeps.

Now let's look at some specific tips for writing a good topic sentence:

First, you don't have to include all the five W's in your topic sentence (the who, what, when, where, and why), but you should include as many as necessary to provide context and give your readers a clue about what is coming up. More importantly, though, the topic sentence should include the “so what” of what follows. 

Consider the following example: "My husband is the best!" OK, we're sure he is, but why? What does he do? Why is that important? Now compare that to: "My husband is the best because he takes care of me when I am sick, allowing me to recuperate." This topic sentence gives a lot more context and detail by including the so what (it allows me to recuperate). You could then follow this up with a specific example of when he took care of you and how that made a difference or other examples of his greatness.

To expand on one of our earlier examples by including the "so what," we could write, "My kitten has two modes: feline tornado and sleep, which means I have to carefully schedule my video calls.”

Next, keep your topic sentences relatively short and stick to one controlling idea (or at least a couple of related ones, like in the examples we discussed earlier). If you try to include all your thoughts in your topic sentence, your readers may be confused about what your main point is and where you're heading. So keep it simple! Don't confuse your readers with too much detail upfront. This includes direct quotations; save them for the supporting details. 

Also, remember that, while each topic sentence introduces a single paragraph, they should all relate back to your overall topic and main point. Think cohesiveness! A normal paragraph will have an introduction, which will be the topic sentence; a body, where you will provide your supporting details; and a conclusion. Keep it coherent by adding transitions between sentences and paragraphs, using parallel structure (the same verb tense, for example), keeping paragraphs short and generally related to one topic, and being consistent with your grammar and point of view. (For example, are you writing in first or third person?) Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services has a great example of a cohesive paragraph on their webpage, and I'll put a link to that in the show notes.

Finally, consider putting together an outline before you start writing. Top-line bullets will be your topic sentences, and sub-bullets will be the bodies of your paragraphs.

The segment was written by Susan Herman, a retired U.S. government multidisciplined language analyst, analytic editor, and instructor.


by Mignon Fogarty

Before we get to the familect this week (remember: that word is a blend of the words "family" and "dialect"), I recently came across a fun word and concept that's similar: the fanilect, a dialect that is used among fans. 

For example, I like "Star Trek," and fans of "Star Trek" will say things to each other like "Live long and prosper," which I'm sure you've heard, but also things you may not have heard, like fans will say, "Shaka, when the walls fell," when something is going particularly badly, which is from an episode of "Star Trek the Next Generation" where the crew meets an alien species that speaks in metaphors and allegories. And fans of "Game of Thrones" will warn that "Winter is coming," although that one is probably so widely known now that even people who aren't huge fans use it too, or at least recognize it, which would make it a catchphrase instead of a fanilect. "Mischief managed" from the Harry Potter books is another one that could be a fanilect, but might be a borderline catchphrase.  

Fans of different musicians will also use lyrics with each other and more broadly. Like Taylor Swift fans might say, "Look what you made me do," or "I’m the problem. It’s me." 

Sports fans can have fanilects too. My editor told me about the phrase "Bucks in 6" that started years ago during excitement about the Milwaukee Bucks possibly winning the NBA playoffs in six games but that's now become more of a general rallying cry among fans. 

I first heard about fanilects when I saw that Cynthia Gordon, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, was giving a talk about them at the Planet Word Museum in Washington, D.C., and just like familects, these fanilects are ways for people to connect with each other, bond over their shared experiences, and show that they're part of the group. 

I'll be keeping more of an eye out now for fanilects, and maybe you'll notice them too. It's nice to have a name for it.


by Mignon Fogarty

And now, I have a FAMilect story that led me down an interesting rabbit hole. 

"Hello, Mignon. I'm a big fan of your podcast here. I have familect story for you. And so we're basically a non-native household, and we speak English all the time. And at some point we have this need to use the the suffix '-able' for phrasal verbs. So, you know, the suffix you can use for doing things like 'doable' or 'unthinkable.' But sometimes with phrasal verbs, we also wanted … and I really don't know how to use this, so we just invented something. So for example, if you want to know whether something is due throwing away or you just want to ask, then we would say, 'Hey, is this throwable-awayable?' It's a little bit of a joke, but we do it so often that it became a thing, but really because we don't know how do you do it? So do you say 'throwawayable' or is it a 'throwable away'? Or you can just say 'disposible.' I don't know, I don't know. It's just a question. It started as a joke, it became a thing as totally fun for us, so I thought you might enjoy it."

I did enjoy it! So the only phrasal verb I can think of that I've heard turned into an adjective like this is "put down." People talk about a good book being "unputdownable." You'll see it a lot in marketing copy. "This book is unputdownable, [exclamation point]!" Most online dictionaries also have the word — Collins, Oxford Languages, Cambridge Dictionary, Merriam-Webster — they all have "unputdownable" although a couple of them call it "informal." 

And although you may think this is new and trendy, the Oxford English Dictionary says it goes all the way back to 1839. They found it in the writing of Lady Lytton, a British author of fourteen novels, who was famous, in part, for very publicly calling out her ex-husband, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also a well-known novelist, for his infidelity and hypocrisy.

So making phrasal verbs into adjectives with the "-able" suffix isn't common, but it is something that's happened before and has been successful enough to make it into dictionaries, and you're in good company with your inventive "throwawayable" words! 

The fabulous World Wide Words website has an entry on "unputdownable" and has a few more examples too — some you'll find in dictionaries and some you won't — but although they've occurred in writing, none of them are words I've ever heard before. They include "get-at-able," "untalkaboutable," and "unwipeupable."

Thanks for sending me on this fun little word hunt. And it turns out the husband, Bulwer-Lytton, coined a lot of phrases we still hear today, including "the pursuit of the almighty dollar," "the pen is mightier than the sword," and "It was a dark and stormy night."

If you're wondering why the name Bulwer-Lytton sounds familiar to you, one reason could be that the last line — "it as a dark and stormy night" — was the inspiration for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by the San Jose State University English Department, which gives a tongue-in-cheek award to the person who can intentionally write the worse opening line to a novel. I love the tagline on the website: Where "www" means "wretched writers welcome." The winners are always hilarious, and there's a grand prize plus entries in categories such as detective fiction, Western novels, and romance novels. You can read entries on their site going all the way back to 1996, and the 2023 grand prize winner is Maya Pasic from New York, who wrote, "She was a beautiful woman; more specifically she was the kind of beautiful woman who had an hourlong skincare routine that made her look either ethereal or like a glazed donut, depending on how attracted to her you were."

Entries are typically due in June, so you have a lot of time to work on your travesty if you're so inclined. They report that the winner receives "a cheap certificate and bragging rights."

If you want to share the story of your familect, your family dialect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story because that’s always the best part.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to our audio engineer, Nathan Semes; our ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; our digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; and our marketing associate, Davina Tomlin. And finally, a special thanks this week to our director of podcasts, Adam Cecil, who became so obsessed with Lucozade, a UK sports drink that's kind of like a carbonated Gatorade with enough sugar to kill a small mammal, that he decided to pack up and move there so that he could have Luco every day. And sadly for us, that means this is his last week at Quick and Dirty Tips. But luckily for one of you, he would love to get a podcasting job in the London area, so if you're looking for someone fabulous with high-level experience at a podcasting network, hit him up. You can find him at We'll miss you, Adam.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.