Saturday, July 5, 2008

Transitions require special care (1)

Clear transitions are an important part of clear writing. A transition is, of course, a move from one topic to another or from one aspect of a topic to another.

Often the writer will use a transitional word or phrase* such as therefore or on the other hand to mark the transition and make the direction clear. But many transitions are so obvious that they don’t require a transitional word or phrase. For example, the following paragraph is quite clear (although wooden) with no transitional words or phrases at all:

“Siblings can differ a lot in personality. My brother is garrulous. I am laconic.”

The reader easily recognizes the sense: “Siblings can differ a lot in personality; for example, my brother is garrulous whereas I am laconic.”

For the reader, the worst thing the writer can do about a transition is to use an incorrect transitional word or phrase. It’s almost always more confusing than the absence of a transitional word or phrase – just as an incorrect road sign is more confusing than a missing road sign.

Here’s an example:

On the web site of Cornell University, we see these two sentences from Erica L. Wagner, Ph.D.:

“While both my students and I enter the classroom at the beginning of each term with prejudices based on our pre-existing knowledge, it is through dialogue with each other that we adjust our interpretive lens and come to a finer reading of the situation. As such, I adopt a nurturing and motivating pedagogical style (as opposed to acting as a transmitter of content, or an ultimate expert who treats students as apprentices) in an effort to help students expand their view of the world.” (Boldface added.)

As used here, as such is incorrect. When correctly used, the transitional phrase as such is equivalent to in that capacity. The capacity must be clearly stated in the previous clause or sentence. For example, this is correct: “Jane is a professional diction coach. As such, she tends to notice even the slightest accent.”

So, when the reader encounters Dr. Wagner’s “As such,” he looks back into the previous sentence for a statement of the capacity. Finding none, he has to guess what she meant. A good first guess would be “Therefore.” (Currently, it is trendy to misuse as such as if it were synonymous with therefore.) Other guesses might include “Appropriately,” or “This is why” or “Consequently.” But the reader can’t be sure – and Dr. Wagner has wasted his time.

The Takeaway: Don’t let your readers get lost. When editing your drafts, pay special attention to transitional words and phrases. Use a dictionary. Personal tip: when I am editing a long or complex document, I do a special read-through just to check for incorrect or missing transitional words and phrases; you may find this technique useful.

*Somewhat confusingly, we usually refer to transitional words and phrases as “transitions.” Unfortunately, this usage is well established and we’ll have to live with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment