ESL Writing. Transition Words – Or Not
ESL writers! You need transition words, right? That’s what everyone teaches. When you write your papers, you need to insert words that “link” one idea to the next one. And why are these transitions important?
- You want readers to follow your thinking from the beginning of the paper to the end.
- If two ideas are related, good transitions help the reader see how they relate.
- A good transition helps you prepare the reader to turn to a new topic without confusion.
- Transitions can show the chronology of an experiment or show that certain ideas are built on ideas that came before them.
These are all good reasons to use transition words. But there’s a problem—sometimes we are taught that if we just tack certain specific words onto the beginning of a new sentence, we have made a good transition. But unfortunately, that’s just not true. Good transitions aren’t created automatically, just by inserting a few well-known “transition words.” Making a good transition is more subtle than that.
First, which “transition words” are we actually talking about here? Do you recognize the most common ones?
- Additionally (or its variant, in addition)
- Therefore (and occasionally, thus)
These words are often overused. And when they are used, they are often not used properly. So let’s look at them more closely.
The Most Used Transition Words
It’s not as though these are bad words. These common words appeared in my bullet list, above, for a reason. Sometimes we do really need to use them to transition from one topic to the next or to relate one paragraph to a previous one. But that’s because all of these words have quite specific meanings.
And what that means is that they can’t simply be inserted at the beginning of a sentence or a paragraph whenever a writer wants to transition to a new thought. Each word needs to be used only when its individual meaning is needed. So let’s summarize those meanings.
Therefore, consequently, or thus: Is your new sentence an actual, definite result of what you described in the previous paragraph or sentence? Yes? Then you can use therefore, consequently, or thus. But if your idea is not a result of what you just described—no. Don’t add these words. Their specific meanings do not fit into your new sentence.
Furthermore: This is probably the favorite transition word of ESL writers. But it is also used incorrectly most often. It also has a specific meaning—it is not a word that merely means “now we’re moving to a new topic.” It is used when you have made a point or established an idea, and you are now pushing that idea even further (as the word itself suggests—since it contains that shorter word, “further”). You could also be adding a fresh view to that topic. The important thing to remember is that this word says you are taking one idea (which you have already been talking about) and you are pushing it forward.
Moreover: This word suggests to the reader that you are pushing a topic to a new level or into new territory. You are building on information that you have already presented—and your new, added information might add some important details and might even be a bit surprising to the reader. If you are not doing any of this—if you are just trying to move from one sentence to the next and somehow connect them together—you almost never need this word. And that final word, additionally—what about it? It, too, rarely needs to be used.
In fact, most of the time, you don’t really need any of those overly used transition words. At all. You can find many other—better—ways to make your discussion flow logically and naturally from point to point. And you can do it without inserting obvious “transition words” as cues to the reader.
One of the phrases you can use, for example, came at the beginning of my previous paragraph. Did you catch it? I began the first sentence with the short phrase, in fact. That phrase made it clear that I was building, in some way, on what I had said in the paragraph at the end of the previous section.
And I have done it again, in the first sentence of the paragraph before this one. The words for example in the first sentence are a perfect, specialized transition. I made a general statement, and then I gave a specific example. The second thing followed easily and logically from the first thing. And I never needed any of those famous, over-used transition words from my earlier bullet list.
Remember—even one short word that looks back to something you just mentioned also provides a transition. In fact, the word also is a good illustration of that. It is adding more detail to something you have just talked about (and it’s a good substitute for additionally). The word these is another short transition word that looks back toward something you just talked about. So you could say something like this:
I wanted to buy some paintings as gifts. These turned out to be hard to find.
Whenever you say something like “these students” or “this fact” or “their names”, you are making transitions without the need for the long, complex words in my earlier bullet list. (But as with all pronouns, it has to be absolutely clear what those words are pointing back to. If you had previously mentioned two different groups of students, for example, you probably could not use the word these, because it would not be clear which of the two groups you actually meant. So you need to watch pronouns like him/her, she/he, they/them/theirs, it/its, these/those. They are good transition words, but only if it’s clear what they are pointing back to.)
Or sometimes, in a paper, you might be giving a few facts about something. If you have made it clear that those facts are related, you can simply state each fact in a separate sentence or in compound sentences, without using a word like additionally. Each new fact sits beside the earlier ones in an obvious relationship, because you introduced them to be that way.
To create this type of “nontransitional transition,” I might say something like this:
I enjoy several things about the winter. It brings some relief from the heat waves of the summer. It replenishes the soil with moisture. It allows the plants to restore their strength. It also gives me a chance to show off my boots!
In the first sentence, I set up this whole series of sentences to be a connected series, using the words several things. And the series of sentences ends with the low-key transition word—also—which brings the list to completion.
Other Examples of Transitions
You can create other transitions quite naturally, just by letting the logic of your thinking guide your choice of words. As mentioned earlier, the phrase for example automatically connects your new thought to the previous thought. You are simply illustrating your previous statement with an example.
To the reader, this move seems totally logical—he or she is probably unaware that you have even made a transition. You have indeed moved on to something new, but you have done it so naturally that the reader won’t even notice. You have no need to point out the transition with an obvious “transition word.” (But as always, you can’t just stick the phrase for example into a sentence solely to create a transition; you have to be giving an actual example of something you just mentioned.)
In other words is another low-key transitional phrase. You have made a statement, and now you want to restate the idea in a different way to try to make it clearer to your readers. You are giving them a second way to look at the information and increase their understanding. That’s just one of the ways of explaining something well—but it’s also a good transition.
The word similarly at the beginning of a sentence functions almost the same way as the phrase in other words. It signals to the reader that you are about to describe something that works like the thing you have just finished talking about. So you have linked those two things very simply and logically by mentioning that they are similar in some way.
You also create transitions very logically and easily when you are showing contradictions or contrasts between two things. Here is a contradiction described in several possible ways:
Several studies suggest that this medication should reduce the worst symptoms of the disease. Our study, to the contrary, appears to show a worsening of the symptoms instead.
While several studies suggest that this medication should reduce the worst symptoms of the disease, our study appears to show a worsening of the symptoms.
Several studies suggest that this medication should reduce the worst symptoms of the disease, but our study appears to show a worsening of the symptoms.
And the following is a contrast. (Note that a contrast is not a contradiction. You are comparing two things or ideas and checking where they are different and where they might be similar.)
Several studies suggest that this medication should reduce the worst symptoms of the disease. In contrast, our study shows that exercise can have the same effect without using the medication.
(Note again: the phrases to the contrary and in contrast mean different things. The two phrases are not interchangeable!)
There are many other ways to move from one idea to the next idea in your writing. Even though some of them might involve complex, often used words such as furthermore or moreover, most transitions can be achieved more naturally and less obviously. I hope the examples in this post have shown you some other ways to make transitions—ways that don’t signal the transitions quite so obviously to your readers.
If you want further help or other ideas for making transitions in your writing, the following are two other great sites that have lots of information. Happy writing!
Transitional Words and Phrases (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Transition Words (English Language Smart Words)