Transitions (tran-ZISH-ins) are words and phrases that connect sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. They are used to help writing flow smoothly and unify disparate elements into a unified whole. Transition words and phrases are like little bridges that writers use to help readers seamlessly cross from one idea to the next.
Transition was first used in English circa the mid-15th century. The word comes from the Latin transitionem, which means “a going across or over,” and originates from the stem of transire, “to go or cross over.”
Where Transitions Are Located
In continuing to think of transitions as bridges to help readers move between ideas, it is easy to identify moments where they might be most necessary. There are three places where transitions are considered most useful in a piece of writing:
- Between sentences inside the same paragraph: These transitions tend to be short phrases or a single word. They help readers understand what will come next or the connection between ideas or actions within the paragraph.
- Between different paragraphs: When a writer begins a new paragraph, they frequently focus on a new idea. Thus, they use transitional phrases between paragraphs so readers can easily follow their train of thought. These transitions can happen near the end of the first paragraph, at the beginning of the next paragraph, or in both places.
- Between sections in longer pieces of writing: In longer works, where readers may lose track of prior information or not recognize what information they should pay the most attention to, transitional paragraphs are important. These tend to summarize important information from earlier sections and indicate the relevance of information that the upcoming sections will cover.
Why Writers Use Transitions
The primary goal for most writers is to effectively express their ideas, and transitions provide clear links between sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. Without transitions, a piece of writing often feels confusing and jagged, as if none of the ideas are truly connected to each other.
Consider these sentences: “Rashid woke up early. He likes the morning. He has a physics lab report to finish writing.” There are no smooth transitions from one sentence to the next. Although each individual idea is clear, readers won’t necessarily understand the connections between them. The only similarity is that Rashid is the subject.
Now, consider this revision: “Rashid woke up early because he likes the morning. Additionally, he has a physics lab report to finish writing.” When transitions are added, the connections between the ideas become clear, and the flow of the writing is much smoother. Because shows why Rashid woke up (he likes the morning). Additionally reveals that there is a secondary reason he woke up early: he needs to finish writing his physics lab report.
Different Functions of Transitions
Transitions may be used for a variety of reasons, but some of the most common are:
- To acknowledge a counterargument or concede a point (at any rate, although, at least)
- To build upon previous ideas (additionally, furthermore, besides, moreover, another key point)
- To compare or show similarities between ideas (similarly, likewise)
- To focus attention or emphasize an idea (specifically, in particular, especially, indeed, above all, truly, most importantly, it is important to note)
- To provide examples (to illustrate, for instance, for example)
- To show consequences or the result (so that, consequently, as a result, therefore)
- To show contrast between ideas (but, yet, however, conversely, notwithstanding, on the other hand, on the contrary)
- To indicate time or sequence (before, at last, eventually, first, second, third, later, next, after, afterward, then)
- To suggest actions or ideas (for this purpose, with this in mind)
- To sum up the ideas (therefore, finally, consequently)
Examples of Transitions in Literature
1. Natalie Diaz, “It Was the Animals”
Diaz’s poem tells the story of her brother bringing home a piece of wood he claims was part of Noah’s ark. The poem begins with her brother bringing the wood fragment home and explaining what it is:
Read the inscription, he told me,
it tells what’s going to happen at the end.
What end? I wanted to know.
He laughed, What do you mean, ‘what end?’
The end end.
Then he lifted it out. The plastic bag rattled.
His fingers were silkened by pipe blisters. [bold for emphasis]
The transition word Then serves two functions. It indicates a sequence of events: first, the siblings converse, and secondly, the brother removes the wood from the bag. The second thing that Then does is subtly shift the poem from a strange but believable narrative to a scenario where readers understand that the ark is really a mundane piece of wood and the brother, clearly a drug addict, is suffering from hallucinations.
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, the devoted and bumbling Dr. Watson examines a mysterious hat and tells his friend, Sherlock Holmes, that there it contains no obvious clues. The scene unfolds as follows:
“I can see nothing,” said I, handing [the hat] back to my friend.
“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason
from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences.” [bold for emphasis]
Doyle uses the transitional phrase On the contrary to emphasize the contrast between Watson’s statement about seeing and Holmes’s ability to put observation into practical use. The use of this phrase also sharpens the distinct characterization between these two men.
3. Tara Westover, Educated
Westover’s memoir chronicles her childhood in a family that lived off the grid, eschewing conventions like public schools and doctor visits to avoid government documentation. In Chapter Two, Westover’s mother tries to obtain birth certificates for her children. Because they have no school or medical records, however, it is difficult for her to prove their existence enough for officials to create birth certificates. Westover concludes this story by saying:
In the end, I got my birth certificate long before Luke got his. When
Mother had told the voices on the phone that she thought I’d been born
Sometime in the last week of September, they’d been silent. But when
She told them she wasn’t exactly sure whether Luke had been born in
May or June, that set the voices positively buzzing. [bold for emphasis]
Westover uses In the end to indicate the conclusion of her anecdote. Before the excerpted paragraph, she detailed the measures her mother took to obtain this certificate. Westover signals the conclusion with a transitional phrase that guides the reader away from the actions her mother took and toward the final result.
Further Resources on Transitions
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) has some good tips on writing transitions in your essays.
The University of Richmond’s Writing Center has supplied a useful list of transition words and phrases.