TRANSITIONS: Transitions within a paragraph

One of the most important things you can do to communicate your ideas to a reader is to provide transitions between all of the ideas and support that you use to prove your thesis. An effective transition shows how ideas connect and relate to each other; it also smooths the shift between one idea and another. There are three main kinds of transitions in academic writing:

Transitions within a paragraph. An effective paragraph is organized logically, so that the information at the beginning of the paragraph leads logically to the information at the end of the paragraph. Each sentence in a paragraph should flow from the previous sentence and lead directly into the following one. Otherwise, readers can become confused and alienated from your argument. Consider the following two paragraphs:

The ideas of Confucius have been responsible for one of the most important religions in the world: Confucianism. It would be more accurate to characterize Confucius as an “ethical philosopher” rather than as a “prophet” or a “religious figure.” Confucius said nothing about the kinds of issues that religions usually deal with: divine beings, miracles, revelation, and the afterlife. He was concerned with constructing an ethical system that people could use to determine correct behavior in any situation.

The ideas of Confucius have been responsible for one of the most important religions in the world: Confucianism. However, Confucius himself said nothing about the kinds of issues that religions usually deal with: divine beings, miracles, revelation, and the afterlife. Instead, he was concerned with constructing an ethical system that people could use to determine correct behavior in any situation. It would, therefore, be more accurate to characterize Confucius as an “ethical philosopher” rather than as a “prophet” or a “religious figure.”

Even though the ideas presented in the two paragraphs are identical, the second paragraph is much easier to read. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is structural: in the first example, the second sentence presents an unfamiliar claim (that Confucius should be considered a philosopher rather than a religious figure) that seems to contradict the claim in the first sentence (that the ideas of Confucius have been responsible for an important world religion). Such abrupt changes of thought tend to take readers by surprise. The second paragraph, by contrast, gives the evidence first and proceeds, step by step, to the conclusion, which, by the end of the paragraph, seems natural, logical, and even inevitable. Arranging ideas in a logical order helps you move smoothly from idea to idea.

The second reason that most readers would prefer the second paragraph is that it uses transition words such as “however,” “instead,” and “therefore” to show how ideas are related to each other within the paragraph. These transition words serve as cues that the reader can use to follow the writer’s chain of reasoning and see logical relationships between different assertions. Good transition words should reflect the logical relationship between ideas that you are conveying. Some common transition words and phrases include:

ADDITION

In addition to

Also

Furthermore

Moreover

CAUSATION

Consequently

Because of

Thus

Therefore

As a result of

Hence

Then

In effect

COMPARISON

Similarly

In comparison

In the same way

Compared to

CONTRAST

In contrast

By contrast

However

Nevertheless

Conversely

On the one hand

On the other hand

Instead

Transitions between paragraphs. A well-written paragraph generally centers on a single idea or claim. It is therefore extremely important to demonstrate how the information in one paragraph relates to the information in the next—otherwise, you end up with interchangeable paragraphs that make good points individually but do not add up to a coherent argument.

Transitions to the overall argument. It is not enough simply to show how the ideas in a paragraph relate to ideas in other paragraphs; you must also show how they relate to your overall argument—the argument encapsulated in your thesis statement. Each time you make a new claim, you should demonstrate how this new information relates to the overall thesis of the essay. A transition can link one claim to the thesis statement, and to the next claim.

For an example of the importance of these last two kinds of transitions, read the following sample essay carefully and try to determine how the ideas in it are connected to each other and to the overall thesis statement (which is the same thesis statement that we used when discussing introductions earlier in this chapter).

Machiavelli: Ideas Whose Time Has Come . . . and Gone

In the early sixteenth century, a prince had absolute power over his state. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, therefore, he set out to teach potential leaders how to best utilize the tyrannical power at their disposal. His advice was clear, concise, and very effective for its time; however, much has changed in the past five hundred years. Since the late eighteenth century—when in their new Constitution America’s Founding Fathers experimented with a radical idea called the “separation of powers doctrine”—most of the industrialized democracies in the world have adopted some form of power sharing between their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his own day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Machiavelli argues that a leader must constantly prepare for war. While it is certainly true that a modern head of state must be concerned with the defense of the nation, it is no longer the case that he or she alone can make any final decisions about either war or preparation for war. Thus, when George W. Bush decided to send American troops to Iraq, he had to spend weeks lobbying Congress for permission to commit American troops to a foreign engagement and months attempting to raise the money to support them once they were there.

At the heart of Machiavelli’s advice is the assumption that a prince is free to tax the people and spend their money as he or she sees fit. While this was true of all princes in Machiavelli’s day, it is very rarely the case for leaders today. Executive officers, such as presidents, do not normally have the power to tax people or to spend their money—both of these powers now rest with legislative bodies, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate. During his first term, for example, President Bill Clinton attempted to violate one of Machiavelli’s cardinal rules by taxing people heavily in order to finance a generous health care initiative.

Machiavelli’s ideas would not work in most countries today. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many twentieth-century political leaders managed to seize absolute power over their countries—from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the early part of the century to Pinochet, Mobutu, and Hussein in our time. These leaders have repeatedly shown that absolute power concentrated in a single person is not in the best interests of the state.

If you had trouble seeing the relationships between the main ideas in this paragraph, do not be alarmed. They are very difficult to see, because the essay does not have any transitions in it. It relies on the reader to be able to recognize the connections. The last three paragraphs in this essay are also completely interchangeable. If you were so inclined, you could take a pair of scissors and cut these paragraphs out, replace them in the essay in any order, and neither the flow nor the logic of the essay would suffer.

Now, read the same essay with all the transitions in place. You will notice that the transitions (in bold) account for about a third of the paper’s total word count. Also notice that these transitions are not afterthoughts tacked onto each major idea, but integral parts of the structure of each paragraph.

Machiavelli: Ideas Whose Time Has Come . . . and Gone

In the early sixteenth century, a prince had absolute power over his state. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, therefore, he set out to teach potential leaders how to best utilize the tyrannical power at their disposal. His advice was clear, concise, and very effective for its time; however, much has changed in the past five hundred years. Since the late eighteenth century—when in their new Constitution America’s Founding Fathers experimented with a radical idea called the “separation of powers doctrine”—most of the industrialized democracies in the world have adopted some form of power sharing between their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers doctrine is that it eliminates the ability of any president or prime minister to declare or prepare for war without the consent of a legislative body.Machiavelli argues that a leader must constantly prepare for war and study the art of armed conflict. While it is certainly true that a modern head of state must be concerned with the defense of the nation, it is no longer the case that he or she alone can make any final decisions about either war or preparation for war. In nations that observe the separation of powers principle, both war and peacetime military expenditures have much more to do with budgetary committees than with presidential decrees. Thus, when George W. Bush decided to send American troops to Iraq, he had to spend weeks lobbying Congress for permission to commit American troops to a foreign engagement and months attempting to raise the money to support them once they were there. Machiavelli could not have imagined such a division of power in his day and could hardly have been expected to anticipate it in his advice to princes.

In addition to preventing leaders from going to war whenever they choose, the separation of powers principle also prevents leaders from taking Machiavelli’s advice to avoid lavish expenses and to be content to be considered misers rather than spendthrifts (32–33). At the heart of this advice is the assumption that a prince is free to tax the people and spend their money as he or she sees fit. While this was true of all princes in Machiavelli’s day, it is very rarely the case for leaders today. Executive officers, such as presidents, do not normally have the power to tax people or to spend their money—both of these powers now rest with legislative bodies, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate. During his first term, for example, President Bill Clinton attempted to violate one of Machiavelli’s cardinal rules by taxing people heavily in order to finance a generous health care initiative. He was prevented from doing this by a power that Machiavelli could not have understood: a legislative body that had to approve all new expenditures by the government.

Our experiences with both war and taxation demonstrate that, even though some modern American presidents and European prime ministers have wanted to put Machiavelli’s programs into effect, they have rarely had the concentration of power necessary to be completely Machiavellian.There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many twentieth-century political leaders managed to seize absolute power over their countries—from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the early part of the century to Pinochet, Mobutu, and Hussein in our time. These leaders have repeatedly shown that absolute power concentrated in a single person is not in the best interests of the state, and their examples have caused countries all over the world to incorporate the separation of powers doctrine into their constitutions. This fact makes Machiavelli’s advice increasingly less relevant to our day. Almost all of Machiavelli’s advice assumed a leader with absolute power; wherever nations follow the doctrine of the separation of powers, such advice will be of little use to modern politicians.

These transitions relate the various ideas in the paper both to each other and to the overall thesis of the essay: that Machiavelli’s ideas would not work in a modern democracy because the separation of powers doctrine would prevent anyone from having the power that he ascribes to princes. Each paragraph extends this argument into some realm of contemporary politics and then explicitly explains how it relates back to the overall thesis. As a result, the entire essay comes across as a single, coherent argument about the contemporary relevance of Machiavelli’s political theory.

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