Transitional Expressions

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Wooden sign post with two opposite arrows
Transitional expressions are sometimes called signposts. (Emma Kim/Getty Images)

A transitional expression is a word or phrase that shows how the meaning of one sentence is related to the meaning of the preceding sentence. Also called a transition, transitional word, or signal word.


Though important for establishing cohesion in a text, transitional expressions can be overworked to the point that they distract readers. "Overuse of these signals can seem heavy-handed," says Diane Hacker. "Usually, you will use transitions quite naturally, just where readers need them" (The Bedford Handbook, 2013).

A transitional expression can be useful for making a text or a speech flow well, with clear connections between ideas. However, inexperienced writers will often use these phrases too often, peppering them in every sentence or multiple times in a single sentence, which can actually have the opposite effect: confusing readers or obscuring the point, rather than clarifying the point.

Examples and Observations

  • "Far to his left, in the northeast, beyond the valley and the terraced foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, rose clear and magnificent into the sunset. Nearer, perhaps ten miles distant, and on a lower level than the main valley, he made out the village of Tomalín, nestling behind the jungle, from which rose a thin blue scarf of illegal smoke, someone burning wood for carbon. Before him, on the other side of the American highway, spread fields and groves, through which meandered a river, and the Alcapancingo road."
    (Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, 1947)
  • "The secret is that our holidays should rest not only our minds and bodies but our characters too. Take, for example, a good man. His goodness wants a holiday as much as his poor weary head or his exhausted body."
    (E.V. Lucas, "The Perfect Holiday," 1912)
  • "Over the years his family had turned ironical and lost its gift for action. It was an honorable and violent family, but eventually the violence had been deflected and turned inward."
    (Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman, 1966)
  • "Santayana was the last aesthetician to describe beauty without self-consciousness; and that was in 1896. As a result, we now live in a relativist's world where one man's beauty is another man's beast."
    (Gore Vidal, "On Prettiness," 1978)
  • "If Larry shoots field goals at 0.6 probability of success, he will get five in a row about once every thirteen sequences (0.65). If Joe, by contrast, shoots only 0.3, he will get his five straight only about once in 412 times. In other words, we need no special explanation for the apparent pattern of long runs."
    (Stephen Jay Gould, "The Streak of Streaks," 1988)
  • Using But as a Transitional Expression
    "Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do the job for you: 'but,' 'yet,' 'however,' 'nevertheless,' 'still,' 'instead,' 'thus,' 'therefore,' 'meanwhile,' 'now,' 'later,' 'today,' 'subsequently,' and several more. I can't overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with 'but' when you're shifting direction. . . .
    "Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with 'but.' If that's what you learned, unlearn it--there's no stronger word at the start."
    (William Zinsser, On WritingWell, Collins, 2006)
  • Using Specific Transitions
    "Transitional expressions within a paragraph and between paragraphs help the reader move from one detail or supporting point in an essay to the next. When first learning to organize an essay, beginning writers may start each body paragraph and every new example with a transitional expression (first, for example, next). These common transitions are useful and clear, but they can sound mechanical. To improve the flow of your ideas and the strength of your written voice, try to replace some of these expressions with specific phrases (at the start of the meeting or in some people's minds) or with dependent clauses (when drivers use cell phones or as I approached the intersection)."
    (Paige Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier, The Least You Should Know about English, Form A: Writing Skills, 11th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • "It turns out . . ."
    "Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression ‘it turns out’ to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succinct, and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statements without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It’s great. It’s hugely better than its predecessors ‘I read somewhere that . . .' or the craven 'they say that . . .' because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it is research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight."
    (Douglas Adams, "Hangover Cures." The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Macmillan, 2002)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Transitional Expressions." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Transitional Expressions. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Transitional Expressions." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).