Connectors (transitionals)

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Discourse connectors (overview)


Discourse connectors, also known as connectives or transitionals, are words that connect phrases, clauses, sentences, and ideas, such as but, and, so, then, although and numerous others. They are crucial for establishing coherence, or logical flow of sentences, clauses, and ideas, in written or spoken discourse. This overview page presents different linguistic categories of connectors. Other pages (forthcoming) will provide detailed lists of connectors, discussion of pedagogy, and problems of ESL/EFL students with English connectors. See also Swales & Feak (2004)[1].

1 Overview

Coherence refers to the flow of ideas, clauses and sentences in writing. In addition to simple words and phrases used as transitionals (conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and such), other words and other structures serve transitional functions. In addition to transitionals, some words indicate logical connectedness between items being discussed, or coherence1. The most common forms for maintaining this kind of flow are illustrated below.

Also called connectives or connectors, these are single words or short phrases that connect ideas, clauses and sentences. Some are pure conjunctions (but, though, and), while others were adverbs that came to be used like conjunctions (furthermore, therefore, thus, however). Various types are used for managing the flow of ideas and making this clear to readers, such as contrastive markers (but, although, however), additive or sequential markers (and, afterwards, then), emphatic markers (even, especially, particularly), and others.

Connectors include most conjunctions, as well as conjunctive adverbs and other expressions that have been pressed into service as connectors. Most of these connectors are also called discourse markers, which refers to those that do not crucially affect the truth value of the clause or sentence. In other words, conjunctions like if, whether, unless, before would be excluded from the category of discourse markers, as they negative or significantly limit the truth value of their clauses.

Discourse particles are differentiated as a separate category, due to their unique grammatical and pragmatic features; these include terms such as like, well, oh, I mean, etc.

See below for pedagogical handouts for teachers and students.


2 Syntactic categories

Connectors can be divided into more traditional grammatical categories as follows. For more on the difference in usage between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, see the section on pragmatics below.


2.1 Coordinating conjunctions

These coordinate two clauses or verb phrases, or smaller units, such as two nouns (e.g., cat and mouse), adjectives (e.g., good and bad), or other word types, e.g.:

  • and, or, but, yet, just as, such as, also, both...and, either...or


The paired conjunctions like both...and and either...or are traditionally known as correlatives.


2.2 Subordinating conjunctions

These subordinate a dependent clause to a main clause, and are distinguished from subordinators that are not connectors in the normal sense (like relative pronouns and complementizer particles such as that).

  • after, before, although, as, while, whereas, since, because


2.3 Conjunctive adverbs

These are adverbs that have taken on the function of conjoining clauses, e.g.:

  • however, furthermore, therefore, thus


2.4 Sentence adverbs

These adverbs, also known as sentential adverbs, express the speaker's assessment of the whole sentence, and are similar to (if not slightly overlapping with) the conjunctive adverbs. They are set apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma in writing, or a slight intonational rise or juncture in speaking. These can sometimes come at the end of the sentence, especially in colloquial style, as more of an afterthought without the nuance of emphasis.

  • Most common: Naturally, Incidentally, Thankfully, Regrettably, Fortunately, Apparently, Especially
  • Others: actually, apparently, basically, by the way, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, especially, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, hypothetically, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, oddly, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, unfortunately, wisely

For example:

Apparently, an overwhelming majority in the Senate would be assured, if they can win seats in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Mississippi.

Thankfully, the check arrived on time. Unfortunately, the package had been misdirected to the wrong city, and in the process the contents were damaged.

Compare this to the flow of a sentence like “...the contents were damaged, unfortunately” – in such a sentence, the adverb is added at the end, like an afterthought. A sentence adverb at the end tends to sound more colloquial, and as an afterthought, it has a bit more emphasis, which breaks the flow more.


2.5 Emphatic adverbs

These emphasize the particular word that they modify.

  • Even, only, merely, especially, particularly

The adverb especially is also used as a sentence adverb at the beginning of the sentence. However, if it modifies the whole sentence as a sentence adverb, this is colloquial or informal style, and is dispreferred in academic writing. In formal writing, it can occur sentence-initially only if it modifies a following adjective or other word. That is, especially sentence-initially is fine in formal style if used only as an emphatic adverb, not as a sentence adverb. If it is used as an emphatic sentence adverb, this interrupts the natural flow of academic prose, as it emphasizes and calls attention to the whole clause (like raising one's voice or typing in all capital letters - excessive emphasis on an entire clause). Instead, moving it to only modify a single word in the sentence, or replacing it with the less emphatic particularly / in particular would be better options.

  1. The information is various from the exchange rate and stock prices and to the current of national economy. Especially, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (colloquial)
  2. ... Economic predictions are especially useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (better academic style; especially is only an emphatic adverb, modifying only useful)
  3. ... In particular, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (also better for academic style)


2.6 Prepositions

Prepositions can serve as transitionals, particularly prepositional phrases, compound prepositions, and phrases derived from participle plus preposition.

1. Compound prepositions

  • because of, due to, except for

2. Participle plus preposition

  • based on, according to, depending on

3. Prepositional phrase

  • in light of, as a consequence of, in addition to


2.7 Other phrases

Other multi-word expressions have come to be used as transitionals, e.g.,

  • this instant, as a matter of fact, as mentioned previously, last but not least, that is to say, in other words, to put it mildly, to repeat


3 Genre-based categories

These are semantic-pragmatic categories from more traditional genre-based approaches to writing instruction, based particularly on the genres or discourse forms of particular paragraph types.

  1. Time and sequence: and, then
  2. Addition: and, also, too
  3. Repetition, emphasis: as mentioned, the aforementioned, that is, that is to say, to repeat
  4. Exception: other than, except for
  5. Example: e.g., for example, like, as, for instance
  6. Reason, purpose: because, since, in order to
  7. Result: so, thus, as a result, hence
  8. Condition: in case, if, whether, in case (of)
  9. Concession (weaker contrast) but, yet, although, while
  10. Contrast: but, however, on the other hand, whereas
  11. Comparison: as, just as, likewise, in like manner, similarly
  12. Summary: in conclusion, in sum, overall
  13. Enumeratives: first, second, third


4 Pragmatic categories

4.1 Topical adverbs

Some adverbials function like sentence adverbs, but also serve topic transitional functions, signalling a shift or focusing in topic. Topical adverbs (this is my own name for them – this is not a standard term) are somewhat similar to sentence adverbs, except that they function to identify or qualify the topic of the coming clause. This adverb is similar to a normal adverb within a sentence, but moved to the beginning to make the topic more explicit, to emphasize the speaker's point, to give it more prominence, to shift the topic to a new but somewhat related topic, or to avoid too many other adverbs inside the sentence.

  • Economically, this would be infeasible to implement while the markets are too unstable. (cf. "This would be economically infeasible to implement")
  • Politically, it would be unwise for the senator to suddenly propose such an outrageously expensive funding project at an economically depressed time as this.


Many words could be used like this, such as these, and many others, such as adverbs related to specific topics or fields of study:

  • scientifically, mathematically, artistically, financially, intellectually, philosophically, computationally, psychologically, economically, politically, intellectually, biologically, environmentally, presently, evolutionarily, emotionally


4.2 Topic shift markers

Some words are used to manage shifts to new topics, or shifting back to previously mentioned topics (reshifts). In colloquial English and narratives, now can be used for new topics or reshifts; anyway can be used colloquially for reshifts. In various kinds of contexts, as to, as for, as regards, regarding, etc. can be used for reshifts, but in academic writing these are less common; one should be careful not to overuse these to avoid sounding stylistically too mechanical, artificial, colloquial, or formulaic.

  • Now, as I was saying...
  • As for the unresolved matter of late orders, we've decided to consult with the home office.
  • As regards your proposal, we currently cannot undertake such a complex project.


4.3 Presentational there is/are

Sentences beginning with there is or there are function to present or introduce new topics (e.g., sentence subjects) to the discussion.

  • There's a unicorn in my garden!
  • There's not much that can be done about this problem.


This is more common in informal writing or conversation. In academic writing, there is/are is less commonly used. Instead, academic writers simply start a new sentence with a full noun subject, or begin a new paragraph for a more significant topic shift.

  • The situation seems serious, but unfortunately, not much can be done about this problem at this time.


4.4 Foregrounding and backgrounding

The main difference between coordinating conjunctions versus subordinating conjunctions, or between main clauses and dependent clauses, aside from their syntax, has to do with information flow, namely, foregrounding and backgrounding.

Joining two clauses (or simply introducing the second clause) with coordinating conjunctions put both phrases in the foreground of the flow. On the other hand, subordinating conjunctions put less emphasis on, or draw less cognitive attention to one phrase, that is, they background it. Consider the following pairs.


1a. I ran the simulation, and then the problem became apparent.
1b. After I ran the simulation, the problem became apparent.


2a. We ran 40 subjects in the experiment, but it yielded no conclusive results.
2b. Although we ran 40 subjects in the experiment, it yielded no conclusive results.


3a. Gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, so it was entered as a control variable.
3b. Because gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, it was entered as a control variable.


When we read the (b) examples, the dependent clauses are read more quickly and receive less cognitive attention and processing than their main clause counterparts in the (a) examples. This contributes to a smoother flow in the writing and information flow. Writers can manipulate this by using some connectives to put more focus or emphasis on some items, and can use other connectors to put some items in the background of readers' attention.

Coordinating conjunctions foreground both phrases, while many subordinating conjunctions background the subordinate (dependent) clauses1. That is, they draw readers' attention to the main clauses, but less attention to the subordinate clauses. Some adverbial words also work like conjunctions, and these often foreground both phrases. The more common connectors and, so, but, or actually provide relatively weak foregrounding, while many others have more specific meanings and provide stronger foregrounding.


Foregrounding connectors Backgrounding connectors
furthermore, in addition

but, however, yet
so, thus, therefore, for
meanwhile, during

as

although, though, while
because, since
before, after, while, when


Dependent (subordinate, adverbial) clauses can be used with flexibility to express a particular flow and nuance. If the subordinate clause is placed at the beginning of the sentence, it can form a cohesive, organizing link between the text and/or ideas immediately before the clause and the new information that follows. On the other hand, dependent clauses at the ends of sentences provide expansion of the information in the main clause. For example,

This ability to influence public opinion and mobilize the entire nation against a particular deviant activity ... illustrates the vast power of the mass media in defining deviance and mobilizing support for strong social control. Because they need to capture the public interest, the mass media often sensationalize crime and deviance. (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 183; cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 248)[2]


In this excerpt, the sentence-initial position of the because clause connects the information in the preceding sentence to that in the main clause (e.g., public opinion—public interest, the mass media—they, and vast power—capture). Specifically, adverbial clauses at the beginning of sentences play the role of connectives and transitions between ideas and information in keeping with the-old-information-first-and-the-new-information last pattern. The following example shows how the subordinate clause (adverb clause) expands on the preceding idea in the main clause by providing further examples or support.

The annihilation of a minority may be unintentional, as when Puritans brought deadly diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 237; cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 248)[2].

4.5 Enumerative or ordinal transitionals

These are terms like "first, second, third," etc. Forms like "first, second, third" are more North American style, while "firstly, secondly, thirdly..." are more British style. One should not mix the British and American terms inconsistently, and in academic writing it is better to avoid the colloquial "first of all." In English academic writing, these ordinal transitionals are less commonly used, and are more common in less formal writing (or on essay exams). In academic writing, using these regularly can make the writing sound mechanical, artificial or formulaic, so these should be used conservatively, e.g., when explaining more complex or abstract sequences of ideas that may be more difficult for the reader to follow. Otherwise, it is sufficient to start sentences with full noun subjects without these ordinal transition, and the logical flow would generally be sufficiently clear in academic writing.


4.6 There is/are

4.6.1 Presentational there is/are

Sentences beginning with there is or there are function to introduce new topics (e.g., sentence subjects) to the discussion.

There’s a unicorn in my garden!

There’s not much that can be done about this problem.

This is more common in informal writing or conversation. In academic writing, there is/are is less commonly used. Instead, academic writers simply start a new sentence with a full noun subject, or begin a new paragraph for a more significant topic shift.

The situation seems serious, but unfortunately, not much can be done about this problem at this time.


4.6.2 There + intransitive verb

There is also used for shifts in topics or in the focus of the flow of the writing; this is more common in academic, formal, and also narrative writing (e.g., for shifting the reader’s attention to a new scene or to a new thing that appears in the narrative scene). This is less colloquial than there is/are for academic writing purposes. The intransitive verbs that can be used with this are verbs whose meanings have to do with existence (exist, live, occur, appear, happen, prevail, remain) and change of state (disappear, vanish, arrive, die, come, arise). The sentence subject comes after the verb.

There appears to be a problem here. There arose such a clamor in the house.


4.7 Sentence inversion

An adjectival, adverbial, participial, or prepositional phrase is placed at the front of the sentence, displacing the subject after the verb. This serves as a segue (transition) from one topic to a new but closely related topic in a narrative, and makes for a smoother and more interesting flow of topics. It is also sometimes used in formal and academic writing as well as narrative writing. This occurs mainly with intransitive verbs and some passive verbs.

(a) Adjective phrase
(b) Participial phrase
(c) Adverb phrase
(d) Prepositional phrase
+ Verb + Subject

Examples:

You’re driving as fast as you like on the highway and feel like the king of the road – then zooming up from behind like a rocket there comes a rival contender, bullying you to get out of the way.

On the sign were written the foreboding words, “No passing zone”.

Closely related to there-sentences are inverted sentences, such as this one.

Quite frustrated was the little mouse, being unable to get around the house cat.

Inverted sentences can also be used with there for a similarly smooth flow to a new, less expected topic or item.

You’re driving as fast as you like on the highway and feel like the king of the road – then zooming up from behind like a rocket there comes a rival contender, bullying you to get out of the way.


4.7.1 Verbs with inversion and there-sentences

Sentence inversion and there constructions (there is, there seems...) occur with intransitive verbs of the following types, and occasionally, certain passive verbs that indicate location rather than action. Inversion is also limited to introducing related topics – items related to the context or inferrable from the context, rather than something entirely new. The there construction at the beginning of a sentence or clause is for introducing new items to the discourse. These are often used in narratives, and often in the past tense.[3]

verbs of existence: be, exist, remain, tend, stand, sit
verbs of appearance: appear, disappear, arise, vanish, seem
change of state: change, occur, happen, break, die, fall, shrink, condense, freeze, grow
certain motion verbs: flow, fall, arrive, come, go, walk, turn, run, return, roll, open, close
passive location verbs: be located, be found


Examples:

There arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

There appeared a cheetah in the distance.

There happened to be a hefty fine for such behavior.

In the hallway stood an angry chicken, holding an axe with both wings.

In the middle of the field grew a giant beanstalk, reaching to the sky.


One should keep in mind that some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, with different meanings, e.g., break, change, increase, decrease, and many others.


4.8 Topic shift markers

Some words are used to manage shifts to new topics, or shifting back to previously mentioned topics (reshifts). In colloquial English and narratives, now can be used for new topics or reshifts; anyway can be used colloquially for reshifts. In various kinds of contexts, as to, as for, as regards, regarding, etc. can be used for reshifts, but in academic writing these are less common; one should be careful not to overuse these to avoid sounding stylistically too mechanical, artificial, colloquial, or formulaic.

Now, as I was saying... As for the unresolved matter of late orders, we’ve decided to consult with the home office.

As regards your proposal, we currently cannot undertake such a complex project.


4.9 Clefts

Clefts take the form "it’s the ___ that”or the wh-cleft, “what ____ is ____”. These are used in colloquial English for emphasis or making a contrast; thus, these are not common in academic writing.

Will we milk the goat today? No, it’s the yak that I need to milk. What I need to do is milk is the yak.


4.10 Paragraphs

Paragraph breaks indicate a shift to a new topic. (Hence, using there expressions or first, second, etc. to begin topic sentences and new paragraphs often sounds redundant in academic writing, when paragraph structure already conveys this flow of thought.)


5 Pedagogical handouts

The following are PDFs for teachers and students

  1. Connectives chart: Some common transitionals
  2. A landscape version of the above chart
  3. A handout version of the above chart
  4. Intro to transitionals
  5. Coherence devices for logical flow
  6. Cohesive devices for connections among words, word flow, and clear wording
  7. Transitionals problemata: Common problems that East Asians students have with connectors / transitionals


6 References

  1. Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hinkel, E. (2013). Teaching academic ESL writing. Routledge.
  3. These types of verbs share a common linguistic property: they are considered agentless verbs – the subject of the verb is not a volitional agent (performer, doer, actor) of the action, but a non-agent (not doing any action) or non-volitional (not controlling the action). The motion verbs act somewhat like these agentless verbs in these constructions because they also convey a change of state or appearance onto the scene (e.g., there came a man from Mars indicates appearance upon the story scene).