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Five common transition signal errors and how to fix them

If you ever have the chance, google the band Modest Mouse and listen to their music. Just so that you can never do it again.

I bring this up because reading an essay where transition signals are used incorrectly is like being subjected to a lot of unpleasant noise. To recap, transition signals are words and phrases that, when used correctly, enhance the flow of an essay.  Read our post introducing some key types of transition signals here. In this article, we’ll learn how to tune our instruments and give a stellar performance that doesn’t hurt anyone’s ears, by learning what not to do.

Error #1: Using too many transition signals

As the expression goes, “too much of a good thing” (Christmas pudding, full moon dancing, etc.) can be negative. The same applies to transition signals. Some students get so excited about using them that they use more than necessary and this creates text that is choppy and confusing. Here is an example of this, plus a correction…

Luckily there are ways to avoid overusing transition signals, for instance:

  • Don’t use two transition signals with similar meanings in the same sentence.
  • Don’t use too many short, simple sentences with transition signals; instead, combine simple ideas using fewer transition signals.
  • Ask yourself if the transition signal is necessary, or if it creates confusion in which you’re better off without it. For example:

The teacher encouraged students to rate how satisfied they were with the course. Therefore, the average rating was 8.5.

This doesn’t make sense as the second sentence implies that the average student rating was related to the teacher’s encouragement of students to rate the course. So, the transition signal is unnecessary.

The teacher encouraged students to rate how satisfied they were with the course. Therefore, The average rating was 8.5.

Error #2: Mixing up the order

I’ve found that students tend to muddle Cause & Effect transition signals (because, since, thus, due to, etc.), which state that one thing is the result of, or logically leads to, another thing. Perhaps this is because some Cause & Effect sentences can read a bit like the brainteaser: “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” Most often though, the cause and the effect become clear if you read the sentence carefully. Take a look at this example…

The word “result” seems to resonate more with my students than “effect”, so if it helps to rather call them Cause & Result transition signals, go for it.

Follow these tips to avoid muddling the order when using transition signals:

  • Read the sentences carefully to establish the correct order. Ask yourself: which action/decision/belief came first?
  • Pay particular attention to transition signals where the two clauses/sentences are closely intertwined (a bit like Laurel and Hardy, or Antony and Cleopatra), including Cause & Effect and Comparison & Contrast transition signals (however, nonetheless, although, whereas, etc.).
  • Be careful with transition signal phrases that sound the same but can’t be used in the same way. For instance:

Incorrect: Overeating is a result of obesity.
Correct: Obesity is a result of overeating. / Overeating results in obesity.

Incorrect: Respiratory problems can cause air pollution.
Correct: Respiratory problems can be caused by air pollution. / Air pollution can cause respiratory problems.

Error # 3: Using incorrect grammar

No man is an island, and neither is a transition signal. Indeed, the purpose of transition signals is to link pieces of text (the clue is in the name – transition signal). Therefore, it’s important to give as much love to the sentences, clauses, and paragraphs that transition signals connect as the transition signals themselves. As an ESL teacher, I’ve found that students can have difficulty with getting this surrounding grammar right, as the below example shows:

It’s important to remember that different transition signals follow different grammatical rules. For example, transition signals like “although”, “though”, “even though”, and “whereas’” are classified as “subordinating conjunctions.” This is a fancy way of describing a word or phrase that adds more information about the big guy (or main clause).

It’s helpful to remember that because a subordinating conjunction’s job is to add information to the main clause, it means that these transition signals can never, ever, ever (just one more “ever” for good measure) stand alone. If they do, we have a grammatically dire situation called a “sentence fragment” (and all the king’s linguists raced frantically to put the broken words back together again).

A main clause can be distinguished from a dependent clause because it can stand independently. Study this example, which shows how our very helpful, neighbourly subordinating conjunction transition signals link main/independent and dependent clauses:

“Okay teacher,” I hear you thinking. “That’s easy because all the transition signals in the same category (Cause & Effect, Emphasis, Addition, etc.) must follow the same grammar, right?” Alas, no. It is better to learn the grammar for transition signals individually, rather than per category, since the category of the transition signal does not always determine its grammar.

Hence, we have Comparison & Contrast transition signals such as “in contrast” starting a new sentence, while others such as “however” that can act as subordinating clauses or start a new sentence. Other transition signal categories are similarly hodgepodge when it comes to grammatical rules. Not confusing at all!

To make things easier for yourself, memorise the two broad grammatical structures that transition signals fall under, namely: clause connectors (which include the subordinating conjunctions just mentioned), and sentence connectors.

As we have seen, clause connectors are used to connect two clauses to make one sentence – these connectors use a comma. Sentence connectors, on the other hand, connect two feistily independent, complete sentences using either a full stop or semi-colon, and are followed by a comma. Here are examples with transition signals that function as sentence connectors:

It is commonly accepted that children acquire languages with more ease than adults. Similarly, studies show that children have more musical talent than adults.

It is commonly accepted that children acquire languages with more ease than adults; nevertheless, adults should not be discouraged and instead embrace learning a new language. (“Nevertheless” can also connect two sentences with a full stop). It is commonly accepted that children acquire languages. Despite this, not all children are given the opportunity to realise their linguistic potential.

Error #5: Using variations of transition signals incorrectly

Some transition signals can change form, which can puzzle students. For example, “in spite of” can be used on its own, or with “whether”. On the other hand, “despite” can be used with “this”, “the fact that”, or with a gerund.

Whichever transition signal variation you choose, be aware that the surrounding grammar must change too, as can be seen here:

In conclusion, it is possible to avoid falling into transition signal manholes if you tread carefully and follow our expert tips.


By Leigh-Anne Hunter

For more ideas, and real life examples, see Master Transition Signals.

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