The most convincing ideas in the world, expressed in the most beautiful sentences, will move no one unless those ideas are properly connected. Without transitions that take readers, kindly, from one thought to another, they will surely turn to something else or turn on the television.
Providing transitions between ideas is largely a matter of atttitude. You must never assume that your readers know what you know. In fact, it's a good idea to assume not only that your readers need all the information that you have and need to know exactly how you arrived at the point you're at, but to assume also that they are not quite as quick as you are. You might be able to leap from one side of the stream to the other; believe that your readers need some stepping stones and be sure to place them in readily accessible spots.
There are four basic mechanical considerations in providing transitions between ideas: using transitional expressions, repeating key words and phrases, using pronoun reference, and using parallel form.
USING TRANSITIONAL TAGS
Transitional tags run the gamut from the most simple -- the six little conjunctions: and, but, nor, for, yet, or, so -- to more complex signals that ideas are somehow connected -- the conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions such as however, moreover, nevertheless, on the other hand.
The use of the little conjunctions -- especially and and but -- comes quite naturally. The question whether one can begin a sentence with a small conjunction often arises. Isn't the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence a sign that the sentence should have been connected to the prior sentence? Well, sometimes. But often the initial conjunction calls attention to the sentence in an effective way, and that's just what you want. Over-used, it's distracting, but it can add a refreshing dash to a sentence.
Here is a chart of the transitional devices (called conjunctive adverbs or adverbial conjunctions) accompanied with a simplified definition of function (note that some devices appear with more than one definition):
A word of caution: Do not interlard your text with transitional expressions merely because you know these devices connect ideas. They must appear, naturally, where they belong, or they'll stick like a fishbone in your reader's craw. (For that same reason, there is no point in trying to memorize this vast list.) Having said that, if you can read your entire essay and discover none of these transitional devices, then you must wonder what, if anything, is holding your ideas together. Practice by inserting a tentative however, nevertheless, consequently. Re-read the essay later to see if these words provide the glue you needed at those points.
addition again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, moreover, next, second, still, too comparison also, in the same way, likewise, similarly concession granted, naturally, of course contrast although, and yet, at the same time, but at the same time, despite that, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, otherwise, regardless, still, though, yet emphasis certainly, indeed, in fact, of course example or
after all, as an illustration, even, for example, for instance, in conclusion, indeed, in fact, in other words, in short, it is true, of course, namely, specifically, that is, to illustrate, thus, truly summary all in all, altogether, as has been said, finally, in brief, in conclusion, in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to put it differently, to summarize time sequence after a while, afterward, again, also, and then, as long as, at last, at length, at that time, before, besides, earlier, eventually, finally, formerly, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, in the past, last, lately, meanwhile, moreover, next, now, presently, second, shortly, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, still, subsequently, then, thereafter, too, until, until now, when
REPETITION OF KEY WORDS AND PHRASES
The ability to connect ideas by means of repetition of key words and phrases sometimes meets a natural resistance based on the fear of being repetitive. We've been trained to loathe redundancy. Now we must learn that catching a word or phrase that's important to a reader's comprehension of a piece and replaying that word or phrase creates a musical motif in that reader's head. Unless it is overworked and obtrusive, repetition lends itself to a sense of coherence (or at least to the illusion of coherence). Remember Lincoln's advice:You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people some of the time.In fact, you can't forget Lincoln's advice, because it has become part of the music of our language.
Remember to use this device to link paragraphs as well as sentences.
Pronouns quite naturally connect ideas because pronouns almost always refer the reader to something earlier in the text. I cannot say "This is true because . . ." without causing the reader to consider what "this" could mean. Thus, the pronoun causes the reader to sum up, quickly and subconsciously, what was said before (what this is) before going on to the because part of my reasoning.
We should hardly need to add, however, that it must always be perfectly clear what a pronoun refers to. If my reader cannot instantly know what this is, then my sentence is ambiguous and misleading. Also, do not rely on unclear pronoun references to avoid responsibility: "They say that . . ."
Real music in prose is often the result of parallelism, the deliberate repetition of larger structures of phrases, even clauses and whole sentences. We urge you to read the Guide's section on Parallelism and take the accompanying quiz on recognizing parallel form (and repairing sentences that ought to use parallel form but don't). Pay special attention to the guided tour through the parallel intricacies within Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
COHERENCE DEVICES IN ACTION
Look at the following paragraph:The ancient Egyptians were masters of preserving dead people's bodies by making mummies of them. Mummies several thousand years old have been discovered nearly intact. The skin, hair, teeth, fingernails and toenails, and facial features of the mummies were evident. It is possible to diagnose the disease they suffered in life, such as smallpox, arthritis, and nutritional deficiencies. The process was remarkably effective. Sometimes apparent were the fatal afflictions of the dead people: a middle-aged king died from a blow on the head, and polio killed a child king. Mummification consisted of removing the internal organs, applying natural preservatives inside and out, and then wrapping the body in layers of bandages.Though weak, this paragraph is not a total washout. It starts with a topic sentence, and the sentences that follow are clearly related to the topic sentence. In the language of writing, the paragraph is unified (i.e., it contains no irrelevant details). However, the paragraph is not coherent. The sentences are disconnected from each other, making it difficult for the reader to follow the writer's train of thought.
Below is the same paragraph revised for coherence. Italics indicates pronouns and repeated/restated key words, bold indicates transitional tag-words, and underlining indicates parallel structures.The ancient Egyptians were masters of preserving dead people's bodies by making mummies of them. In short, mummification consisted of removing the internal organs, applying natural preservatives inside and out, and then wrapping the body in layers of bandages. And the process was remarkably effective. Indeed, mummies several thousand years old have been discovered nearly intact. Their skin, hair, teeth, fingernails and toenails, and facial features are still evident. Their diseases in life, such as smallpox, arthritis, and nutritional deficiencies, are still diagnosable. Even their fatal afflictions are still apparent: a middle-aged king died from a blow on the head; a child king died from polio.The paragraph is now much more coherent. The organization of the information and the links between sentences help readers move easily from one sentence to the next. Notice how this writer uses a variety of coherence devices, sometimes in combination, to achieve overall paragraph coherence.