by Hugh Jenkins (English department)
We've devoted a lot of time to coming up with clearly defined premises, ways of focusing and sharpening your argument. We're now going to spend some time on transitions,or ways of moving from one idea to another. Certain types of transitions are valuable whenever you move from idea to idea; you can use much of what I list here in your thesis or topic sentences, or within paragraphs, as you move from sentence to sentence. But you will use transitions most frequently between paragraphs, as you move from one fully developed idea (or topic) to the next.
All transitions seek to accomplish one simple feat: that of connecting old information to new information. Most sentences work and connect in a pattern of old to new; what is "new" in the previous sentence becomes what is "old" in the new sentence, which introduces a new idea-and so on. Here's a sample paragraph from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (pp. 333-34):
That morning [old: described in previous paragraph] was when I first began
to reappraise the "white man' [new]. It was when I first began to perceive that "white man" [old, from last sentence's new], as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions [new]. In America, "white man" meant specific attitudes and actions [old, from new] toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men [new].
Note that Malcolm X uses no simple transitional words, like "also" or "however"; rather, he establishes clear relationships between his ideas, a clear "flow" to his writing.
Malcolm X is using what I thus call relational, not mechanical transitions. Most of you know the typical mechanical transitions, consisting of words or phrases which signal an abrupt change of subject: e.g., but, however, nevertheless, second, finally, on the other hand.Although these mechanical transitions can be useful, they can also be dangerous, if used as easy substitutes for logical connections. Mechanical transitions can only assert a connection; they cannot explain a relationship. Particularly dangerous are "adder" transitions, which I've detailed on the accompanying sheet. Below, though, I've listed three ways-certainly not the only ways, but certainly very effective ways-of making relational transitions.
Parallelism uses similar grammatical structures to express two or more ideas; the similar grammar gives each idea equal emphasis, thus indicating equal importance. Use parallelism, then, when you move between ideas of roughly equal weight in your argument You can summarize your previous argument in a brief clause, then set out your next topic in a parallel clause. For example:
Ronald Reagan spent his first term in office establishing the Big Lie as a political tool; he spent his second term perfecting it.
Both the verbs ("spent. . . spent") and the gerund phrases ("establishing . . . perfecting") are parallel, showing the equal weight of the ideas.
If parallelism shows the rough equality of ideas, distinctions show the difference between them. Good distinctions make the contrasts between your ideas sharp. Place the idea you just discussed in the first clause, then distinguish your new idea from it in your second. For example:
My English professor seemed like a nice guy; in reality, though, he turned out to be a real jerk.
As you can see, semicolons (see Strunk and White, rule 5) work nicely to establish clear distinctions: they set off antithetical ideas, here between "seemed" and "reality."
Subordination produces clauses that can't stand alone: when introduced with a subordinating conjunction (as this clause is), they become dependent on another, main clause. So subordination can be a great way of moving between ideas: it can pick up what was said before, rephrase or shorten it, and place it in a clear relationship to what will be said next. There are three types of subordination; relative, temporal, and logical.
Relative subordination uses relative pronouns: e.g., "My English teacher, who illustrates all the problems with Union I've just discussed, still thinks he deserves more money."
Temporal subordination uses subordinating conjunctions that emphasize time: when, after, since, once, before, until, etc., as in "When I told him what he had done to me^l felt better." Use these first two with caution in analytical or expository essays. The first can usually be replaced with more precise logical subordination (see below). The second is more problematic: it often indicates a slippage into simple description (saying what happens) rather than analysis (how or why it happens).
Logical subordination, however, often produces the clearest of transitions. Although it too uses subordinating conjunctions, they are of a more causal or conditional kind: e.g., although, though, because, while, than, if, unless, as, how, etc. This land of subordination sets up a clear and logical relationship between your ideas. Some examples:
Although I hate my English teacher, I still think of him (her) as God on earth.
If I get caught cheating, I will be expelled from college.
By setting up this kind of relationship, you are not only laying out an idea to argue, but you are also indicating how you will argue it. That's the best thing a transition can do.
"Adders" are the best known and least useful of transitions. They connect ideas without in any clear way relating them. They illustrate neatly the old cliché about comparing apples and oranges; unless you establish some basis for the comparison, it's fruitless (so to speak). In this spirit, I have compiled the following list of equivalencies. When you feel the urge to use an "adder," substitute its equivalent. It will probably be just as helpful to your argument.
Adder Equivalent also kumquat further kiwi fruit second, third, fourth, etc. lemon, lime, tangelo, etc. in addition banana in conclusion coconut on the one hand orange on the other cherry next pear too peach finally raspberry
You will, of course, find some use for these transitional devices; they are often good supplements to more relational forms of transition. If you use them on their own, however, you might as well stick to the fruit.
Hugh Jenkins, email@example.com