Choosing Effective Transition Words: A DIY Guide

Friday, November 18, 2016
by Ryan Patrick Welch

Seeing as I tend to write a lot of blogs focused on process/approaches to sustainable writing practices, it may be a good time to write something more applied (and plug some of the resources from the website). This post is inspired by a common experience throughout the semester; quite often, I find myself directing students to the Transition Phrase bank in our Resources section. So, my hope with this post is to raise awareness of some of our useful resource documents, while giving you an accessible and sustainable learning tool. Let’s dig in.

First off, you may be wondering why I’ve found transition phrases to be tricky for many students. There are a bunch of speculative reasons. One possibility is the difference between conversational language and academic language; we can get away with using “furthermore” and “in addition” interchangeably in casual language, but sometimes in an academic context one may be more appropriate than the other. Either way, the audience shifts from being a low-stakes social one to a more scrutinizing audience with different expectations and preferences. First-years in particular have a bit of a hard time with this audience shift, since they’re navigating a new writing situation and learning the ropes. It’s a fair problem to have.

Another potential roadblock is how you want to connect certain ideas. I find that once I’ve talked to the student for a bit about what they’re trying to say, they can usually figure out the best word or phrase to connect things. This is rarely a content issue; they know the ideas, concepts, or processes they’re writing about, but struggle to find the most specific transition word or phrase to string the ideas together.

For example, it’s common to see a student write something like “Pathos is a rhetorical strategy which evokes an emotional response. Therefore, this rhetorical appeal is evidenced by the sad mother-daughter narrative in the advertisement”. In this case, you can read between the lines and understand the connection I’m trying to make, but it’s strained and somewhat confusing because the transition between ideas is a bit muddled. As a cause-effect word, “therefore” doesn’t quite work; it tells the reader that pathos’ rhetorical function has the effect of being present in the advert. This isn’t exactly untrue, but it’s just not as specific or analytical as it could be. Instead, the narrative in the advert is an example of pathos, which would lead me to explain why it’s being used and to what degree it is effective. Something like “An example of pathos being used in the advertisement for emotional appeal is the sad mother-daughter narrative. The potential results of this emotionally compelling narrative are x, y, and z” would be more specific and critically useful. Granted, it’s not a great sequence of sentences, but they highlight what I’m getting at.

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Although somewhat blunt, Montoya's not exactly wrong here. Pinterest

Once you do this analytical work, you’re free to make causal claims about the effect of pathos on x, y, and z. Being trigger-happy with “therefore” often glosses over a lot of processes that you can analyse for a stronger critical evaluation. This may seem like a hyper-specific example, but I think it effectively shows how there’s a nuance when making word choices and how these choices can impact the clarity/effectiveness of your writing. It’s not a question of “right or wrong”; it’s a question of “most effective”.

Punctuation also plays a role in how people use transition words. Specifically, a lot of comma usage errors seem to be connected to a limited vocabulary of transition words. I notice that some students just use commas or semicolons to connect ideas in lieu of the most specific transition word or phrase. This misuse ends up making it hard to follow what ideas are connected and why. Run-on sentences also appear connected to transition words, although for different reasons. It’s possible that run-ons happen when we lose track of the subject (the noun/pronoun which is doing something) of the sentence, which leads to ineffective transitions between unclear ideas. In both cases, I always recommend that students take time to locate the subject of the sentence when they’re constructing a sentence or revising. To drop the grammar language and make this more intuitive, ask yourself “what is the point of this sentence? What is the main idea?”

So what can you do? A good start is to check out our Internal Resources page on the Writing Centre’s website. There are resources on everything I mentioned above, such as transition words, comma usage, semicolon usage, and run-on sentences. The transition word page is particularly useful because it makes you ask yourself “what type of connection am I trying to make?” and choose from a range of potential relationships you may be trying to articulate. Are you trying to describe the sequence of something? Cause and effect relationships? Examples? Once you decide, a drop-down tab opens and gives you a range of word/phrase choices. A word of caution: these are merely suggestions of words that fall under the initial umbrella term. There’s a difference between “concurrently” and “consequently”, even though they both show up under the “Cause/Effect” tab. So treat this tool like a thesaurus and define words you’re unsure about.

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For what it's worth, it's a pretty sweet side to be on. Exrecovery

This may be somewhat surprising, but most of the time when you get “lack of structure/disorganised” scrawled as a comment on a section of your paper, transition words are usually the best place to start. Getting acquainted with this phrase bank will help you in both the short-term and long-term. It’ll obviously help with that essay you’re editing because you’ll catch any unclear or disorganised ideas before submitting a paper. But it’ll also help in the long-term, because this practice will expand your vocabulary of academic language, eventually leading to just knowing the most appropriate word. After a while, having a solid foundation of transition words is also really helpful when you’re trying to generate ideas or content for your writing. Weirdly, having an idea about the specific types of processes/relationships that you want to examine can help you figure out what type of research you need to do or ideas you need to explore in greater detail to form a compelling argument. That may be more of an anecdotal and subjective point, but it’s worth thinking about as you tweak your writing process.

TL: DR: Don’t forget about our online resources! There’s a ton of useful material posted, beyond just the transition words and grammar sections. Poke around there for yourself, especially if you’re in the process of submitting final papers.