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Transitions

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Suppose someone handed you an essay which began:

Summer is coming. I’ve been holding my breath underwater in the bathtub.

Wouldn’t you be, at the very least, confused? That’s because the writer would have left out some very important material: a transition from one thought to a second and quite different thought.  Suppose the writer revised it like this:

Summer is coming, and with the warm weather come days spent poolside. Every year I like to practice swimming, especially underwater distance swimming. So I’ve been holding my breath underwater in the bathtub.

Now the passage makes sense, doesn’t it? The writer’s a bit odd, perhaps, but at least we understand the connection.  That’s because a transition has been supplied between the first and second original sentences.  Note that the writer hasn’t used a “transition word or phrase,” such as nevertheless or in contrast. That’s because while those transition terms are handy and helpful, they’re not the only way to move smoothly from topic to topic. So…one way to transition smoothly is to write a connecting sentence—or sentences.

Another way is to repeat key words and phrases.  How might we smooth the transition between these two sentences?

My father was a kind and gentle man. I am always caught off-guard when a man behaves badly.

Two possible key phrase repetitions:

My father was a kind and gentle man. I expect men to be just as kind and gentle, and I’m caught off-guard when a man behaves badly.

My father was a kind and gentle man. I expect men to be like my father, and I’m caught off-guard when a man behaves badly.

A third way to transition is to use parallel structure.  Changing our example, look at how parallel structure joins these two sentences:

My father was a kind and gentle man. My first husband was a crude and brutal man.

Finally, there’s the tried and true way: to use transition words or phrases:

My father was a kind and gentle man. So [Therefore, Consequently, etc.] I am always caught off-guard when a man behaves badly.

There are too many transition words and phrases to memorize.  In general, these are most (though not all) of the functions of transition:

  • Addition: used when sentence 2 (or paragraph 2) simply adds to what’s been said in sentence/para.1. Examples: and, also, in addition
  • Comparison: used when sent.para. 2 points out similarities to what’s been said in sent./para.1. Examples: also, similarly, likewise
  • Concession: used when 2 is admitting to something not expressed in 1. Examples: granted, admittedly, of course
  • Emphasis: used when 2 stresses the importance of something said in 1. Examples: certainly, indeed, in fact
  • Example/illustration: used when 2 provides an example of something generally stated in 1. Examples: for example, for instance, namely, specifically…
  • Summary/consequence: used when 2 summarizes what’s been said before. Examples: on the whole, all in all, therefore, in other words
  • Time Sequence: used when 2 moves ahead in time from 1. Examples: afterwards, then, next, secondly
  • Contrast: used when 2 contrasts from 1. Examples: in contrast, on the other hand, nevertheless

Lists like this can be convenient, but we must take care not to use these terms willy-nilly.  For one thing, not all sentences should begin with a transition term, because often sentences transition naturally, effortlessly.  If I write:

I love basset hounds. Their ears are long and silky, their feet are huge and sturdy, and best of all they like to sleep as much as I do.

--I don’t need to transition between the sentences, because the second one clearly shows why I love basset hounds.  The transition is clearly implied. When you do see the need to transition and you want to use a transition term, be very careful about your choice.  Here are two sentences that clearly need a transition:

Basset hounds are not affectionate, and you can never trust them around food. Bassets are terrific pets, because they’re hilarious, amazing-looking, and low-key.

In choosing a transition term, first understand what specific job that term will perform.  Will it introduce emphasis? illustration? comparison? Well, no.  Notice that the second sentence seems to contradict the first.  That means you need a contrast transition:

Basset hounds are not affectionate, and you can never trust them around food. Nevertheless, bassets are terrific pets, because they’re hilarious, amazing-looking, and low-key.

So:  As we write, our sentences and paragraphs must transition smoothly from topic to topic, from idea to idea.  Otherwise our essays will seem disjointed and confusing. Sometimes the transition is already implied.  Often it isn’t.   Transitions do not always require the use of specific “transition terms,” but they do require our attention to the particular transition job that’s called for.  Careful attention to this task improves our writing—and smoothes our reading.

Related

Examples of Full-Sentence Transitions

Writing Skills transition words and phrases, transitions, writing transitions

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