Transitions: What They Are and How to Use Them

Writing

 

While drafting the February edition of the TEC newsletter, I found myself flipping through Beth's collection of Editorial Eye back issues, searching for inspiration for our monthly Editors' Tip. I came across an interesting article on transition usage, and there was just too much useful information to fit into one newsletter tip. So, I decided to include the rest of the information in a blog, especially since transitions tend to pop up a lot in academic and business writing especially.

 

Most writers (of any kind) have had experience using transitions, that is, words or phrases that link ideas and illuminate the relationships between the ideas presented. These words or phrases can include common transitions such as therefore, however, although, and in other words, but you may also find yourself using less common ones, such as hence, notwithstanding, moreover, and to the contrary.

How Transitions Work

When you use transitions incorrectly, readers cannot be sure how your words and thoughts relate, and can easily misinterpret your intentions. Consider this example: The software is new. It is widely available.

 

Pretty straightforward, right? Just two sentences, with no transition to link them. However, depending on which transition we use, the meaning of those two sentences can wildly vary.

 

  1. The software is new, and it is widely available. (The software is both new and widely available.)
  2. The software is new, but it is widely available. (It is unusual that the new software is widely available so soon.)
  3. The software is new; therefore it is widely available. (The software is new, so naturally the distributors have made it widely available.)

 

Using the proper transitions protects your ideas from the reader’s assumptions. Unless you want your readers guessing at the relationship between two ideas you’re presenting, take the time to check that your choice of transition is saying what you need it to.

Why an Incorrect Transition is a Problem

The rule for using transitions is pretty simple: Transitions should indicate and clarify the relationship between ideas. Writers must decide which transitions are most appropriate to show the specific relationships they have in mind. In the following examples, the transitions contradict or misstate the writer’s intent:

 

The instructions were simple; therefore, none of the toys were assembled correctly.

 

Either the writer has chosen the incorrect transition, or a word has been left out and the writer really means that the instructions were not simple at all.

 

These history books are outdated; moreover, they are useless.

 

Because outdated history books are implicitly useless—at least as textbooks—the choice of moreover is either wrong (consequently would make more sense here), or a redundant way of saying “These textbooks are so outdated that they are useless.”

 

As you can see above, choosing helpful transitional words or expressions requires an understanding of the categories of logical relationship that they can be used to establish.  See below for a chart that categorizes some examples of transitions by the relationship they are meant to illustrate:


Transitions: Not Optional

Transitions are not nice extras that can be inserted willy-nilly. Even the most careful writers occasionally fail to link all relevant ideas explicitly—they understand so clearly what they mean that, for them, transitions are unnecessary. On such occasions good editors can fill the void, linking ideas appropriately and enhancing reader comprehension. But it often happens that even conscientious editors may find themselves guessing at where a writer is trying to lead them. This can slow down the editing process for all involved. Writers, take note: Your readers can’t cross those transitional bridges unless they come to them.

 

*Blog content courtesy of Mary Jackson Scroggins’ article, “Do You Take Transitions for Granted?” (The Editorial Eye, 15(10))