Transitional Words and Phrases: Little Words, Big Meaning

The Common Core Standards, if you are into that kind of thing, make a pretty big deal about transitional phrases in writing. In fact, they are given the same hierarchical importance as writing techniques such as proving reasons in opinion writing and using dialogue and description in narrative. Wow. The Standards certainly don’t seem to imply that transitional words should be tacked on as an afterthought. And even if you aren’t into the Standards themselves, there is something to be said for emphasizing the kinds of words and phrases that may not deliver a whole lot of meaning on their own, but when used within a piece of writing, are meaning powerhouses.

Study how skilled writers use transitional words and phrases, and what you see might surprise you. Many of the most celebrated writers use humble transitional words (i.e. but, and, or) to offset elaborate and detailed phrases. Malcolm Gladwell is one such writer. Check out what he does in the following excerpt from his New Yorker article “Man and Superman:”

What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?

With the use of a single, simple word: then,  Gladwell is indicating that the information that is to follow is an explanation and elaboration of what has come before. The reader must take into account large portions of fairly complex text in order to understand the significance of that “then.” Later in the passage, Gladwell begins a sentence with “but,” a move that is more and more widely practiced and accepted. The “but” comes at a start of a short sentence sets up readers to hear one of Gladwell’s central ideas. Another sentence, two sentences later, beginning with “but” spells out the central idea.

And so, three little words, so much meaning.

There are many ways to teach kids to use transitional words well, one being to simply give them a list of possible transitions and ask them to use the list to add to their writing. The list might include examples such as:

Transitions that show an example is to come:

  • Thus, for example, for instance, namely, such as

Transitions that show contrast: 

  • But, yet, on the contrary, nevertheless, in spite of, in contrast, on the other hand, rather

Transitions that show adding on: 

  • And, in addition to, furthermore, moreover, than, too, also, likewise

This list doesn’t even touch on transitions that show the passage of time, those that show relative space, or those that show conclusion or importance. Perhaps an even better way, then, to teach students to use transitions well is to teach them to study how the best, most skilled writers actually use them. Less important is that students pepper their writing with a bunch of terms they don’t quite understand, and more important is that the addition of transition words is, for them, an opportunity to really think about how their own writing is structured.

Additionally, if you do give your students a list of possible transition words, consider teaching them to use the list as a way to write more. Certainly, they could study the list, and then study their writing, and think, where can I fit in these words? Or, they could study the list, and think, how could these words help me to add on? Perhaps there is a yet unstated counterargument that the phrase “on the other hand” might help them to conceptualize. Perhaps there is an unfinished conclusion that adding “in conclusion” might jar loose.

All that said (I thought I’d try one I don’t usually use), when first learning to add transitional words and phrases, many students use them awkwardly. And this isn’t a terrible thing. After all, approximation is the key to mastery. Don’t worry, then, if students’ writing sounds like: “Dogs are the best kind of animal. For example, dogs are really great.” That student has learned that the parts of his writing are connected, though he just may need a bit of help to figure out how they are connected.

Finally, I hope you share with us ways that you help your own students to use transition words to improve the quality of their writing.