Transitional Words and Phrases

Good writers rely on the use of transitional words and phrases. Transitional words and phrases show your readers the association between thoughts, sentences, or paragraphs; plus, they help make your writing smoother.

Sometimes sentences and paragraphs have perfectly constructed grammar, punctuation, and usage, but they lack transitional words or phrases. Material written that way seems awkward and stiff, as in this example:

The blind date was a disaster. It was a complete debacle. I was intrigued by what my “friend” Sarah had told me about Bill; she had said he was charming and was open to meeting someone new. He had recently seen me at a party and had wanted to meet me. Sarah said Bill was just my type. She said he was an avid reader; we would have lots to talk about. He liked playing tennis; that was a plus for me.

There's nothing wrong with the grammar, punctuation, or spelling in that paragraph, but it's choppy and boring. Now read the same paragraph after transitional words and phrases (underlined) have been added:

The blind date was more than a disaster. Actually, it was clearly a complete debacle. At first, I was somewhat intrigued by what my “friend” Sarah had told me about Bill; namely, she had said he was quite charming and also was open to meeting someone new. In fact, he had recently seen me in the distance at a party and had wanted to meet me. Besides, Sarah said, Bill was just my type. She said he was quite an avid reader for one thing; therefore, we would have lots to talk about. In addition, he liked playing tennis; that was certainly a plus for me.

Much better, isn't it? By including the transitions, the movement from one idea to another is much smoother, and the language of the paragraph has some life in it.

As important as transitions are in sentences, they're equally important between paragraphs. (Do you see how that transition sentence connects the idea of the preceding paragraph with the idea of this one?) These transitions help you move smoothly from one major concept to the next one.

The following is an excerpt from a piece that compares an essay titled “Why Would You … ?” to a personal experience of the writer. Read the two paragraphs and pay particular attention to the first sentence of the second paragraph, the transitional sentence.

In Conrad Allen's essay “Why Would You … ?” the author recounts how he had been humiliated in elementary school. Allen had been infatuated with Mandy Grayson, a pretty, pigtailed little girl in his class. One Valentine's Day, Allen gave Mandy a card with Manndy perfectly printed — if incorrectly spelled — on the envelope. After she tore open the card, Mandy glanced at it and, much to Conrad's dismay, let it drop on the floor. In a voice loud enough for all the class to hear, she said to Conrad, “Why would you give me a card? You're too dumb and ugly.” Allen writes that he first felt his face turn red in embarrassment, and then he felt complete humiliation as the whole class turned around to stare at him to see his reaction. All he could do was stand frozen in front of Mandy, trying in vain to hold back his shame and his tears.

Like Allen, I felt shame when I was young. When I was in the fifth grade, my family was undergoing some difficult times. At that age, I was close friends with a group of four other girls; in fact, we called ourselves the “Live Five.” Because we all had the same teacher, we were able to spend recess and lunchtime together, and we frequently spent the night at each other's houses as well. At one of the sleepovers at my house, the Live Five vowed to stay up all night. Big mistake. In our efforts to keep each other awake, we disturbed my father. That night happened to be one of the many when he was drunk, and he came down to the basement and began cursing and screaming at all of my friends. Not only did he say horrible things to me, but he also yelled at each of my friends and called them terrible names. The shame of that night continues with me today whenever I see one of the Live Five.

Wow, get out the tissues! You probably noticed that the sentence at the beginning of the second paragraph provides a connection between the ideas of the first paragraph and second paragraph. The first two words (Like Allen) signal that the main idea of the first paragraph will be continued and that a comparison will be made. Plus, the rest of the sentence (I felt shame in school) gives a clue about the topic of the second paragraph. If the transition sentence weren't there, and the second paragraph began When I was in the fifth grade … , the second paragraph would seem disjointed from the first, and readers would be confused.

Remember that transitional phrases are usually enclosed in commas, unless they're necessary to the meaning of a sentence.

As you can see from these examples (that's another transitional phrase — but you picked up on that, didn't you?), you should add transitions whenever possible to provide necessary links between thoughts and paragraphs. By using them, your writing becomes much more unified and articulate.

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