Posted on by 0 comment



What is a paragraph?  It is helpful to think of paragraphs as tools for organizing sentences into series and tiers of information.  Subparagraphs provide supporting information for the paragraphs under which they appear.


  • Identifiers.  Letters or numbers before paragraphs, giving each one a specific identity for easier reference.  Identifiers are required for every subparagraph in a document that uses identifiers; identifiers for first-tier paragraphs are optional in more informal documents, like letters. The text of a paragraph (or the portion marking, in classified correspondence) must follow one space after the identifier. Identifiers can take the form of letters, numerals, bullets, or special tags like “NOTE:”
  • Sub- / Superior paragraphs.  Description of a paragraph’s position relative to another paragraph.

1. This paragraph is the superior paragraph of paragraphs 1a and 1b.

a. This paragraph is a subparagraph of paragraph 1.

b. This paragraph is also a subparagraph of paragraph 1.

  • Tier.  The absolute location of paragraphs in the entire document, with “main” paragraphs as the first tier, subparagraphs of the main paragraphs as the second tier, sub-subparagraphs of the main paragraph as the third tier, etc.  Some people may refer to tiers as “levels” or “layers.”

1. This is the first tier of paragraphs.

a. This is the second tier of paragraphs.

i. This is the third tier of paragraphs.

• This is the fourth tier of paragraphs.

  • Series.  A string of paragraphs in the same tier under the same superior paragraph; a series ends when a new superior paragraph begins.  Each series restarts the identifier count in its tier.

1. This is the first tier of paragraphs.

a. This is the second tier of paragraphs

i. This is a subseries in the third tier.

ii. Subseries are not considered to interrupt a series.

b. This is the second paragraph in the second-tier series.

c. This is the last paragraph in this second-tier series.

2. This new paragraph in the first tier means the second-tier series above is completed.

a. This is the first paragraph in a new second-tier series.

b. This is another paragraph in the new series.

  • Hanging paragraph.  An unidentified paragraph following an identified paragraph, often used mistakenly instead of sub-paragraphs.  Never use hanging paragraphs in a document using identifiers; except in the first tier of informal documents, all paragraphs should have identifiers. Otherwise, there is no point in identifying paragraphs.

1. This is a proper paragraph, with an identifier

This is a forbidden hanging paragraph. Note that first-tier paragraphs in letters lack identifiers, and therefore do not qualify as hanging paragraphs.

NOTE: Paragraphs with special tags clarifying the previous paragraph are exempt from this rule, and can be indented to align with the clarified paragraph.

  • Orphan paragraph.  A paragraph alone in its series.  Unless there is enough material for two paragraphs, do not create a new series of subparagraphs.

Dividing paragraphs.  Never divide a two- or three-line paragraph between pages in documents intended to be printed or viewed online as if in print; enter the full paragraph on one page.  When a paragraph is divided between two pages, at least two lines must appear on each page.

Indentation. The ideal format for paragraphs, for the sake of space and readability is block-format, meaning that the text returns to the left margin, regardless of the indentation of the first line. This gives the document a clean look.  Subparagraphs should be indented one-quarter inch to the right of the superior paragraph under which it falls.

NOTE: Indentation is often dictated by the limitations of software. If the software you are using does not allow block-format indentation, so be it.


Do not indent the first line of a first-tier or “main” paragraph in any correspondence.  In Microsoft (MS) Word, all three markers (the Left Indent block, Hanging Indent arrow, and First Line Indent arrow) should be on the margin.


The second tier should be indented one-quarter inch, but the text should return to the margin to maintain block-format paragraph structure.  Achieve this in MS Word by moving only the First Line Indent arrow to the quarter-inch mark.


The third tier should be indented one-quarter inch further, with the text returning to the margin to maintain block-format paragraph structure.  Achieve this by moving only the First Line Indent arrow to the half-inch mark.

NOTE: To avoid the format hassles that can result from auto-formatting, type [CTRL-v] when MS Word attempts to implement auto-formatting after a hard return, as indicated by the lightning bolt in the image below.  The [CTRL-v] “undo” function will return manual control of formatting without deleting text.

Types of Identifiers.  Identifiers must be kept as clean-looking and unobtrusive as possible.  Therefore, upper-case characters and parentheses are avoided when possible.

a.  Standard paragraph identification.  When there are three or fewer tiers, the first tier should should be identified by Arabic numerals followed by periods, the second tier by lower-case letters followed by periods, and the third by lower-case Roman numerals followed by periods.

b.  Alternate paragraph identification.  When there are more than three tiers, the sequence of identifiers should be: Arabic numerals, capital letters, capitalized Roman numerals, lowercase letters, and lowercase Roman numerals, all followed by periods.  If necessary, start the sequence of identifiers again with capital letters, but inside of parentheses rather than followed by periods.

Bullets.  Bullets are used as alternatives to paragraph identifiers, and have their own rules and standards.

a.  Usage.  Bullets should be used as an alternative to paragraph identifiers only when:

  • The items presented are parallel, meaning a list of information of the same type and importance;
  • The document has three or fewer tiers of paragraphs; and
  • The paragraph under which the bulleted list falls has no subparagraphs.

b.  Punctuation.  Bullet items should be followed by a period only when they form complete sentences. When the bullet list as a whole can be read as a single sentence following the last line of the superior paragraph, commas or semicolons can be used as appropriate.

c.  Indentation.  Bullet items are indented one-quarter inch to the right of the identifier of their superior paragraph but should never follow block formatting.


In MS Word, place the First Line Indent arrow one-quarter inch to the right of the superior paragraph’s identifier.  This determines where the bullets fall.  All other indent markers for the bulleted list, which determine where the text appears, should be one-quarter inch from the First Line Indent arrow.

Leave a Reply