The burden of moving smoothly from one thought to another belongs to the writer. When you write, your reader should never have to go to the trouble of puzzling out hidden connections between ideas; those connections should be readily apparent. You can help your reader see at a glance that a certain train of thought is begun, developed, challenged, or completed by using word signals called transitions.
Good writers combine two transition techniques:
- Using transitional words and phrases (such as however or moreover) to make connections
- Using placement of ideas to make connections (especially in longer papers)
Transitional words and phrases
Transitions are words or phrases (furthermore, for example, nevertheless, indeed) that indicate how a statement in one sentence relates to a statement that precedes or follows. In the following example, the underlined transitions signal contrast:
In the winter of 1973-74 drivers lined up all over America to fill their gas tanks. But it was not merely a question of a fifteen-minute wait and back on the road again. On the contrary, cars often began to congregate at dawn.
Transition words are most effective when they are placed at the beginnings of sentences (although they can also be used in the middle or at the end). The transition below signals a shift to similarity:
Similarly, walkers appeared early on frigid mornings with an empty five-gallon can in one hand and a pint of steaming coffee in the other, determined to wait out the chill and avoid disappointment.
The next passage uses a cause-and-effect transition:
Everybody had to wait. As a result, high-school kids took Saturday morning jobs as gas line sitters; spouses drove their mates to work and spent the rest of the day in line, and libraries had a surge of activity as people decided to catch up on their reading while waiting.
In the final passage, this writer signals that she is summing up and concluding:
All in all, Americans were at their best during that bizarre season, abiding by the new rules as if a place in the gas line had been guaranteed to everyone by the Bill of Rights.
In the lists below you will find that some transitions can do double duty, signaling, for instance, either addition or amplification, depending on the context:
To add a thought or to show sequence in your own writing, use the following transitions:
|again||equally important||in the first place||still|
To amplify or intensify:
|interestingly||it is true||of course|
To show insistence:
To compare or show likeness:
|also||in the same way||likewise||similarly|
To show concession:
|granted||it is true||of course||to be sure|
To show contrast:
|and yet||even so||in contrast||on the contrary||though|
|at the same time||even though||in spite of||on the other hand||whereas|
|but||for all that||nevertheless||regardless||yet|
To give examples:
|an illustration of||for instance||specifically|
|for example||in fact||to illustrate|
To show a restatement:
|that is||in other words||in simpler terms||to put it differently|
To show cause and effect or consequence:
|accordingly||consequently||otherwise||therefore||to this end|
|as a result||for this purpose||since||thereupon||thus|
|because||hence||then||this||with this object|
To show time or place:
|adjacent to||earlier||here||opposite to||there|
|at the same time||farther on||later||so far||until now|
To repeat, summarize, or conclude:
|all in all||in brief||in particular||in summary||therefore|
|altogether||in conclusion||in short||on the whole||to put it differently|
|as has been said||in other words||in simpler terms||that is||to summarize|
Placement of ideas
Another strategy is to place older, previously stated ideas first, followed by newer, just-introduced ideas. This is effective in essay and research papers (generally in pieces longer than a single paragraph).
In the following example, the second paragraph recaps the information contained in the first paragraph before going on to introduce a new idea:
Interestingly, in A Canticle for Leibowitz it is institutional religion itself that leads the struggle against ignorance and superstition. The brothers of the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz live their lives-and sometimes lay those lives down-for the preservation of those fragments of written human knowledge that have survived both the nuclear holocaust and the Great Simplification.
While for generations the church alone values these relics of knowledge, it is also, ironically, the church alone that recognizes (as the new generation of scholar-scientists does not) that knowledge will not redeem man, or make him better, or make him wiser. The secular scholar Thon Taddeo sees the monks as lacking understanding of that which they preserve and himself as a seeker after understanding; nevertheless, it is Abbott Paulo, not Taddeo, who points out that there is no conflict between true religion and Taddeo's "refrangible property of light." In other words, it is the church that most clearly understands both the value and the proper limits of human knowledge.
The above example combines this placement technique with transitions of emphasis, time, addition, contrast, and restatement; you, too, may use every trick in the book to lead your reader along the path of your thought.
USING TRANSITIONAL TAGS
Transitional tags run the gamut from the most simple the little conjunctions: and, but, nor, for, yet, or, (and sometimes) so to more complex signals that ideas are somehow connected the conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions such as however, moreover, nevertheless, on the other hand.
|For additional information on conjunctions, click HERE.|
The use of the little conjunctions especially and and but comes naturally for most writers. However, the question whether one can begin a sentence with a small conjunction often arises. Isn't the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence a sign that the sentence should have been connected to the prior sentence? Well, sometimes, yes. But often the initial conjunction calls attention to the sentence in an effective way, and that's just what you want. Over-used, beginning a sentence with a conjunction can be distracting, but the device can add a refreshing dash to a sentence and speed the narrative flow of your text. Restrictions against beginning a sentence with and or but are based on shaky grammatical foundations; some of the most influential writers in the language have been happily ignoring such restrictions for centuries.*
Here is a chart of the transitional devices (also called conjunctive adverbs or adverbial conjunctions) accompanied with a simplified definition of function (note that some devices appear with more than one definition):
|addition||again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, moreover, next, second, still, too|
|comparison||also, in the same way, likewise, similarly|
|concession||granted, naturally, of course|
|contrast||although, and yet, at the same time, but at the same time, despite that, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, otherwise, regardless, still, though, yet|
|emphasis||certainly, indeed, in fact, of course|
|after all, as an illustration, even, for example, for instance, in conclusion, indeed, in fact, in other words, in short, it is true, of course, namely, specifically, that is, to illustrate, thus, truly|
|summary||all in all, altogether, as has been said, finally, in brief, in conclusion, in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to put it differently, to summarize|
|time sequence||after a while, afterward, again, also, and then, as long as, at last, at length, at that time, before, besides, earlier, eventually, finally, formerly, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, in the past, last, lately, meanwhile, moreover, next, now, presently, second, shortly, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, still, subsequently, then, thereafter, too, until, until now, when|
A word of caution: Do not interlard your text with transitional expressions merely because you know these devices connect ideas. They must appear, naturally, where they belong, or they'll stick like a fishbone in your reader's craw. (For that same reason, there is no point in trying to memorize this vast list.) On the other hand, if you can read your entire essay and discover none of these transitional devices, then you must wonder what, if anything, is holding your ideas together. Practice by inserting a tentative however, nevertheless, consequently. Reread the essay later to see if these words provide the glue you needed at those points.
Repetition of Key Words and Phrases
The ability to connect ideas by means of repetition of key words and phrases sometimes meets a natural resistance based on the fear of being repetitive. We've been trained to loathe redundancy. Now we must learn that catching a word or phrase that's important to a reader's comprehension of a piece and replaying that word or phrase creates a musical motif in that reader's head. Unless it is overworked and obtrusive, repetition lends itself to a sense of coherence (or at least to the illusion of coherence). Remember Lincoln's advice:
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
In fact, you can't forget Lincoln's advice, because it has become part of the music of our language.
Remember to use this device to link paragraphs as well as sentences.
Pronouns quite naturally connect ideas because pronouns almost always refer the reader to something earlier in the text. I cannot say "This is true because . . ." without causing the reader to consider what "this" could mean. Thus, the pronoun causes the reader to sum up, quickly and subconsciously, what was said before (what this is) before going on to the because part of my reasoning.
We should hardly need to add, however, that it must always be perfectly clear what a pronoun refers to. If my reader cannot instantly know what this is, then my sentence is ambiguous and misleading. Also, do not rely on unclear pronoun references to avoid responsibility: "They say that . . ."
Music in prose is often the result of parallelism, the deliberate repetition of larger structures of phrases, even clauses and whole sentences. We urge you to read the Guide's section on Parallelism and take the accompanying quiz on recognizing parallel form (and repairing sentences that ought to use parallel form but don't). Pay special attention to the guided tour through the parallel intricacies within Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Coherence Devices in Action
|In our section on writing the Argumentative Essay, we have a complete student essay ("Cry, Wolf" at the bottom of that document) which we have analyzed in terms of argumentative development and in which we have paid special attention to the connective devices holding ideas together.|
Look at the following paragraph:
The ancient Egyptians were masters of preserving dead people's bodies by making mummies of them. Mummies several thousand years old have been discovered nearly intact. The skin, hair, teeth, fingernails and toenails, and facial features of the mummies were evident. It is possible to diagnose the disease they suffered in life, such as smallpox, arthritis, and nutritional deficiencies. The process was remarkably effective. Sometimes apparent were the fatal afflictions of the dead people: a middle-aged king died from a blow on the head, and polio killed a child king. Mummification consisted of removing the internal organs, applying natural preservatives inside and out, and then wrapping the body in layers of bandages.
Though weak, this paragraph is not a total washout. It starts with a topic sentence, and the sentences that follow are clearly related to the topic sentence. In the language of writing, the paragraph is unified (i.e., it contains no irrelevant details). However, the paragraph is not coherent. The sentences are disconnected from each other, making it difficult for the reader to follow the writer's train of thought.
Below is the same paragraph revised for coherence. Italics indicates pronouns and repeated/restated key words, bold indicates transitional tag-words, and underlining indicates parallel structures.
The ancient Egyptians were masters of preserving dead people's bodies by making mummies of them. In short, mummification consisted of removing the internal organs, applying natural preservatives inside and out, and then wrapping the body in layers of bandages. Andthe process was remarkably effective. Indeed, mummies several thousand years old have been discovered nearly intact. Their skin, hair, teeth, fingernails and toenails, and facial features are still evident.Their diseases in life, such as smallpox, arthritis, and nutritional deficiencies, are still diagnosable. Eventheir fatal afflictions are still apparent: a middle-aged king died from a blow on the head; a child king died from polio.
The paragraph is now much more coherent. The organization of the information and the links between sentences help readers move easily from one sentence to the next. Notice how this writer uses a variety of coherence devices, sometimes in combination, to achieve overall paragraph coherence.