Transitional words and phrases show the relationships between the parts of a sentence, between the sentences in a paragraph, or between the paragraphs in a longer piece of writing (i.e., an essay, short story, novel, magazine article, etcetera). Although transitional words and phrases mean little by themselves, they are very important in linking your ideas together smoothly and logically so that your paragraphs have coherence. Transitional words and phrases can be divided into categories according to the kind of relationship you as a writer are trying to show. There are eight (8) basic categories you must learn:
- To Show Time. after, afterward, always, as soon as, at last, at once, briefly, eventually, finally, immediately, in the meantime, in the past (or future), last, later, meanwhile, next, never, now, often, once, promptly, sometimes, soon.
- To Show Place. above, among, around, at this point, behind, below, beside, beyond, down, forward, from, here, in front of, inside, nearby, next to, on, on the other side, opposite, over, through.
- To Add An Idea. again, also, and, as well as, besides, for one thing, further, furthermore, in addition to, last, likewise, more, moreover, next, similarly, too.
- To Illustrate or Explain an Idea. for example, for instance, in other words, in particular, namely, specifically, such as, that is, thus, to illustrate.
- To Compare or Contrast Ideas. but, even so, conversely, differently, however, in contrast, in spite of, in the same way, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still,yet.
- To Show a Result. accordingly, as a result, consequently, for that reason, hence, then, therefore, thus.
- To Empasize an Idea. above all, especially, indeed, in fact, most important.
- To Summarize an Idea. as has been noted, finally, in brief, in other words, in short, on the whole, to sum up.
These are not all of the transitional words and phrases in the English language that we use, but they represent a good sampling of those most often employed in writing. Remember that transitions are like bridges -- they link one thing with another. They can be used to go forward (on to the next sentence or paragraph) or to go backward (to refer to something that has just been stated). The following is a brief listing of commonly used transitional words and phrases one finds in daily speech:
|so||consequently||at last||in conclusion|
The student writer who masters the usage of transitional words and phrases is well on the way to achieving coherence (a smooth flow in the writing that is logical and easy to follow) in one's writing. Keep in mind that your paragraphs can be unified (stick to the topic sentence and the thesis statement) yet still lack coherence (sounding mechanical and stiff).
Coherence is achieved when the sentences in your paragraphs are arranged in an order that makes your ideas clear and sensible to the reader; the relationship among the sences and paragraphs is logical; and your ideas flow smoothly from one sentence and paragraph to the next. As one of the devices to achieve coherence, transitional words and phrases are a most important writing tool. With reference to using transitions effectively in writing (and also as a guide to reading with comprehension and critically), there are some authors (i.e., Langan, Donnelly, Neeld, et al) who refer to transitions as signal words. Do not let terminology fool you as the intent is the same -- no matter what you refer to these as, it is absolutely essential to master transitions if one is to become a good writer.
Courtesy of Paragraphs (Roloff & Brosseit, 1979)
Topic sentences and signposts make an essay's claims clear to a reader. Good essays contain both. Topic sentences reveal the main point of a paragraph. They show the relationship of each paragraph to the essay's thesis, telegraph the point of a paragraph, and tell your reader what to expect in the paragraph that follows. Topic sentences also establish their relevance right away, making clear why the points they're making are important to the essay's main ideas. They argue rather than report. Signposts, as their name suggests, prepare the reader for a change in the argument's direction. They show how far the essay's argument has progressed vis-ˆ-vis the claims of the thesis.
Topic sentences and signposts occupy a middle ground in the writing process. They are neither the first thing a writer needs to address (thesis and the broad strokes of an essay's structure are); nor are they the last (that's when you attend to sentence-level editing and polishing). Topic sentences and signposts deliver an essay's structure and meaning to a reader, so they are useful diagnostic tools to the writer—they let you know if your thesis is arguable—and essential guides to the reader
Forms of Topic Sentences
Sometimes topic sentences are actually two or even three sentences long. If the first makes a claim, the second might reflect on that claim, explaining it further. Think of these sentences as asking and answering two critical questions: How does the phenomenon you're discussing operate? Why does it operate as it does?
There's no set formula for writing a topic sentence. Rather, you should work to vary the form your topic sentences take. Repeated too often, any method grows wearisome. Here are a few approaches.
Complex sentences. Topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph frequently combine with a transition from the previous paragraph. This might be done by writing a sentence that contains both subordinate and independent clauses, as in the example below.
Although Young Woman with a Water Pitcher depicts an unknown, middle-class woman at an ordinary task, the image is more than "realistic"; the painter [Vermeer] has imposed his own order upon it to strengthen it.
This sentence employs a useful principle of transitions: always move from old to new information. The subordinate clause (from "although" to "task") recaps information from previous paragraphs; the independent clauses (starting with "the image" and "the painter") introduce the new information—a claim about how the image works ("more than Ôrealistic'") and why it works as it does (Vermeer "strengthens" the image by "imposing order").
Questions. Questions, sometimes in pairs, also make good topic sentences (and signposts). Consider the following: "Does the promise of stability justify this unchanging hierarchy?" We may fairly assume that the paragraph or section that follows will answer the question. Questions are by definition a form of inquiry, and thus demand an answer. Good essays strive for this forward momentum.
Bridge sentences. Like questions, "bridge sentences" (the term is John Trimble's) make an excellent substitute for more formal topic sentences. Bridge sentences indicate both what came before and what comes next (they "bridge" paragraphs) without the formal trappings of multiple clauses: "But there is a clue to this puzzle."
Pivots. Topic sentences don't always appear at the beginning of a paragraph. When they come in the middle, they indicate that the paragraph will change direction, or "pivot." This strategy is particularly useful for dealing with counter-evidence: a paragraph starts out conceding a point or stating a fact ("Psychologist Sharon Hymer uses the term Ônarcissistic friendship' to describe the early stage of a friendship like the one between Celie and Shug"); after following up on this initial statement with evidence, it then reverses direction and establishes a claim ("Yet ... this narcissistic stage of Celie and Shug's relationship is merely a transitory one. Hymer herself concedes . . . "). The pivot always needs a signal, a word like "but," "yet," or "however," or a longer phrase or sentence that indicates an about-face. It often needs more than one sentence to make its point.
Signposts operate as topic sentences for whole sections in an essay. (In longer essays, sections often contain more than a single paragraph.) They inform a reader that the essay is taking a turn in its argument: delving into a related topic such as a counter-argument, stepping up its claims with a complication, or pausing to give essential historical or scholarly background. Because they reveal the architecture of the essay itself, signposts remind readers of what the essay's stakes are: what it's about, and why it's being written.
Signposting can be accomplished in a sentence or two at the beginning of a paragraph or in whole paragraphs that serve as transitions between one part of the argument and the next. The following example comes from an essay examining how a painting by Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, challenges Zola's declarations about Impressionist art. The student writer wonders whether Monet's Impressionism is really as devoted to avoiding "ideas" in favor of direct sense impressions as Zola's claims would seem to suggest. This is the start of the essay's third section:
It is evident in this painting that Monet found his Gare Saint-Lazare motif fascinating at the most fundamental level of the play of light as well as the loftiest level of social relevance. Arrival of a Train explores both extremes of expression. At the fundamental extreme, Monet satisfies the Impressionist objective of capturing the full-spectrum effects of light on a scene.
The writer signposts this section in the first sentence, reminding readers of the stakes of the essay itself with the simultaneous references to sense impression ("play of light") and intellectual content ("social relevance"). The second sentence follows up on this idea, while the third serves as a topic sentence for the paragraph. The paragraph after that starts off with a topic sentence about the "cultural message" of the painting, something that the signposting sentence predicts by not only reminding readers of the essay's stakes but also, and quite clearly, indicating what the section itself will contain.
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University