December 11, 2018

From Here to There: How to Use Transitions

For many writers, transitions are a list of eleven words that start the first sentence of a paragraph. Here’s the list:

Also
First, Second, Third . . .
Furthermore
However
In Addition/Additionally
In Conclusion
Moreover
Nevertheless
Next
Therefore
Thus

When you read these transitions, they probably sounded forced and seemed disruptive. That’s because they were forced and disruptive. Few of us use transitions effectively.

Blame high school. Somewhere around junior year of high school a teacher told us transitions are necessary to move the reader from one topic to another. It doesn’t matter that everyone followed what we wrote sophomore year just fine. Now we are sixteen and need to use transitions. We learned quickly to start each new paragraph with one of those eleven words to get a check mark from the teacher. The teacher is gone, but the habit lives on.

There is a universe of more effective transitional words few writers use. But that’s only part of the problem. Transitions are more than a finite set of words and phrases. They connect more than just paragraphs. And they can go many places besides the first word of a paragraph.

We no longer write for high school teachers. Start thinking about transitions differently.

Transitional Words

Because most people associate transitions with specific words, let’s start there. Some words primarily function as transitions. In fact, there are dozens of these words. And when used effectively, these words do more than just flag a new point; they flag the relationship between the prior point and the new point.

Conveniently, Bryan Garner and Ross Guberman compiled lists of such transitional words (Guberman’s has 135 words). They categorized the lists by the purpose each word serves: to conclude, to add a point, to extract the essence, to show cause and effect, to compare, to give an example, to concede a point or preempt a counter-argument, to redirect, to emphasize or expand, to restate or summarize, to sequence ideas, etc.

Here’s a sampling:[1]

 

To show cause and effect To conclude or explain
And so

And therefore

And thus

As a result

Because

For

For that reason

In consequence

On that basis

Since

So

That is why

To that end

To this end

When

With that in mind

So

Then

Thus

Hence

And so

Because

And thus

In short

At bottom

Therefore

All in all

Accordingly

As a result

At its core

That is why

To that end

In any event

Consequently

In consequence

For that reason

To draw a contrast To press a point
At the same time

But

By contrast

Despite

For all that

However

In contrast

In the meantime

Instead

Nevertheless

Not

Rather

Unlike

Yet

In fact

As a matter of fact

Indeed

Of course

Without exception

Still

Even so

Anyway

The fact remains

Assuredly

 

 

A partial version of Guberman’s list is available online.[2]

Garner’s and Guberman’s categories have a wonderful side effect. To find a transitional word, you need to search for a relationship category. And to find the right relationship category, you need to understand the relationship between two of your points. In other words, choosing an effective transitional word requires you to organize and understand your own points.

Use transitional words to signal not just that you are making a new point, but also that point’s relationship with the prior point. As you’ll see in the examples below, using a variety of short transitional words can dramatically improve flow and clarity.

Backward-Looking Phrases

Another form of word-specific transitions are those that refer to a previously mentioned subject. Pronouns and articles like “this,” “these,” “that,” “those,” and “the” always modify a subject.[3] When that subject has been previously mentioned, you have a transition.

  • Under the doctrine of stare decisis, a trial court follows appellate decisions concerning the same legal issue and similar facts. Here, this principle requires . . .
  • Unbeknownst to Mrs. Smith, when the temperature dropped ice formed on the road. And the tanker in front of her leaked oil onto the road. These conditions . . .
  • S. v. Maverick held that any explicit claim that a movie was better than TOPGUN is prima facie evidence of defamation. That decision . . .

Unlike the lists of words mentioned above, these transitions do not flag a relationship. Nor do they connect points. Instead, they continue the story of a particular subject. This method is an effective way to elaborate on a subject, or take a subject in a new direction without making a new point. Look to use these to connect sentences or paragraphs.

Sentence Structure Transitions

Another method uses sentence structure to transition. Converting the direct object of one sentence into the subject of the next sentence creates a tight causal link between the two. You can chain this method together to create a domino effect that connects your starting point with an otherwise unrelated ending point. Take a look.

Example 1: Showing Factual Causation

When the workers left the construction site, they left the cement machine on. Because the machine was on for three hours, it started to leak oil. That oil seeped through the floor. From the floor the oil dripped onto the paintings.

The paragraph establishes a chain of causation. Each sentence begins with a cause and ends with an effect. In the next sentence, the effect becomes a cause. This method links precisely how the workers harmed the paintings.

This same technique works to show a lack of causation (break in causation, intervening causation, lack of foreseeability, etc.). Sometimes spelling out the entire chain of events shows the facts are more attenuated than your opponent suggests. For example:

The conductor extended his arm from the train to the sprinting man. The sprinting man barely clung to a bulky package. The bulky package was filled with fireworks. As the man leapt, the fireworks fell. When the fireworks fell, they caused an explosion. That explosion rippled to a large scale. The scale fell over. When the scale fell over, it hit Mrs. Palsgraf.

Example 2: Showing Legal Causation

The same technique can tie together related legal principles. Take a look:

Under the civil rules, a party may only sue if it has capacity to sue. By state law, businesses only have capacity to sue when they are in good standing with the Agency. Agency regulations grant good standing only when a company timely pays taxes and fees.

This paragraph uses transitions to establish a legal chain. Although different laws are at play, by the end the reader understands that a business can only sue when it has timely paid taxes and fees.

Similarly, this method can help articulate an opponent’s omitted legal premises:

The Defense claims the admission of character evidence before the grand jury violated the Fifth Amendment. But the claim only succeeds if (1) the Fifth Amendment’s grand jury clause has been incorporated to apply to the states, (2) that incorporated clause bars the use of character evidence, and (3) if such character evidence was used here. Because the grand jury clause is not incorporated, the claim fails.

Example 3: Connecting the Facts With the Law

Before making an incision, surgeons sterilize the skin to kill germs. Germs cause infections. Causing infections violates the “do no harm” principle. Violating that principle violates a physician’s duty of care. Such violations are always negligent. So Dr. Smith’s failure to sterilize the skin was negligent.

This paragraph uses transitions to tie sterilization (a fact issue) to negligence (a legal conclusion).

Transitions In Action

In these excerpts, watch then-attorney John Roberts, Justice Kagan, and former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement use some of the techniques described above.

Brief by Then-Attorney John Roberts

As the legislative history of the Act’s PSD provisions makes clear, the determination of BACT is “key” to a State’s ability to manage “growth” within its borders. S. Rep. No. 95-127, at 31 (1977). For this reason, Congress “place[d] this responsibility with the State, to be determined in a caseby-case judgment.” Id. (emphasis added).

. . .

Congress intended the State, in determining BACT, “to consider the size of the plant, the increment of air quality which will be absorbed by any particular major emitting facility, and such other considerations as anticipated and desired economic growth for the area.” S. Rep. No. 95-127, at 31. Given the nature of these judgments, BACT “is strictly a State and local decision.” Id.

. . .

But the EPA cannot claim that ADEC’s decision was “unreasoned.” Nor can the EPA assert that ADEC’s determination in any way results in emissions exceeding national standards or permitted increments. How to control emissions within those standards, without exceeding available increments, was for the State to decide.

. . .

Compounding its error, the court next stated that “the cost-effectiveness of recent NOx control BACT decisions ranged from $0 to $7,000 per ton of NOx removed,” and that the cost-effectiveness of SCR in this case was “well within the applicable range.” Pet. App. 14a. The figure the court relied on, however, pertained to ADEC’s recent BACT determinations for NOx control generally, not for NOx control for similar sources—i.e., diesel-fired electric generators used for primary power generation. See J.A. 205-206. As just explained, the cost of controls for similar sources ranged between $0 to $936 per ton of NOx removed, less than half the estimated cost of SCR in this case—$2,100 per ton of NOx removed. As noted, the EPA itself considers cost-effectiveness in light of “the range of costs being borne by similar sources under recent BACT determinations.” [4]

Ross Guberman observed Roberts’ use of short transition words throughout the brief, like “at bottom, also, under that approach, in short, to this end, because, then, for example, in each case, nowhere, in any event, of course, instead, to begin with, indeed, and thus, just to name a few.”[5] On placement he adds “instead of just sticking these transitions at the beginning of your sentences, place them closer to the verbs, where they are often more effective and interesting.”[6]

Opinion by Justice Kagan

Because parents and school representatives sometimes cannot agree on such issues, the IDEA establishes formal procedures for resolving disputes. To begin, a dissatisfied parent may file a complaint as to any matter concerning the provision of a FAPE with the local or state educational agency (as state law provides). See §1415(b)(6). That pleading generally triggers a “[p]reliminary meeting” involving the contending parties, §1415(f)(1)(B)(i); at their option, the parties may instead (or also) pursue a full-fledged mediation process, see §1415(e). Assuming their impasse continues, the matter proceeds to a “due process hearing” before an impartial hearing officer. §1415(f)(1)(A); see §1415(f)(3)(A)(i). Any decision of the officer granting substantive relief must be “based on a determination of whether the child received a [FAPE].” §1415(f)(3)(E)(i). If the hearing is initially conducted at the local level, the ruling is appealable to the state agency. See §1415(g). Finally, a parent unhappy with the outcome of the administrative process may seek judicial review by filing a civil action in state or federal court. See §1415(i)(2)(A).

Important as the IDEA is for children with disabilities, it is not the only federal statute protecting their interests. Of particular relevance to this case are two antidiscrimination laws—Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U. S. C. §12131 et seq., and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U. S. C. §794—which cover both adults and children with disabilities, in both public schools and other settings. Title II forbids any “public entity” from discriminating based on disability; Section 504 applies the same prohibition to any federally funded “program or activity.” 42 U. S. C. §§12131–12132; 29 U. S. C. §794(a). A regulation implementing Title II requires a public entity to make “reasonable modifications” to its “policies, practices, or procedures” when necessary to avoid such discrimination. 28 CFR §35.130(b)(7) (2016); see, e.g., Alboniga v. School Bd. of Broward Cty., 87 F. Supp. 3d 1319, 1345 (SD Fla. 2015) (requiring an accommodation to permit use of a service animal under Title II). In similar vein, courts have interpreted §504 as demanding certain “reasonable” modifications to existing practices in order to “accommodate” persons with disabilities. Alexander v. Choate, 469 U. S. 287, 299–300 (1985); see, e.g., Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified School Dist., 731 F. Supp. 947, 961–962 (ED Cal. 1990) (requiring an accommodation to permit use of a service animal under §504). And both statutes authorize individuals to seek redress for violations of their substantive guarantees by bringing suits for injunctive relief or money damages.

. . .

The IDEA’s administrative procedures test whether a school has met that obligation—and so center on the Act’s FAPE requirement. As noted earlier, any decision by a hearing officer on a request for substantive relief “shall” be “based on a determination of whether the child received a free appropriate public education.” §1415(f)(3)(E)(i); see supra, at 3.6 Or said in Latin: In the IDEA’s administrative process, a FAPE denial is the sine qua non. Suppose that a parent’s complaint protests a school’s failure to provide some accommodation for a child with a disability. If that accommodation is needed to fulfill the IDEA’s FAPE requirement, the hearing officer must order relief. But if it is not, he cannot—even though the dispute is between a child with a disability and the school she attends. There might be good reasons, unrelated to a FAPE, for the school to make the requested accommodation. Indeed, another federal law (like the ADA or Rehabilitation Act) might require the accommodation on one of those alternative grounds. See infra, at 15. But still, the hearing officer cannot provide the requested relief. His role, under the IDEA, is to enforce the child’s “substantive right” to a FAPE. Smith, 468 U. S., at 1010. And that is all.

For that reason, §1415(l)’s exhaustion rule hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a free appropriate public education. If a lawsuit charges such a denial, the plaintiff cannot escape §1415(l) merely by bringing her suit under a statute other than the IDEA—as when, for example, the plaintiffs in Smith claimed that a school’s failure to provide a FAPE also violated the Rehabilitation Act. Rather, that plaintiff must first submit her case to an IDEA hearing officer, experienced in addressing exactly the issues she raises. But if, in a suit brought under a different statute, the remedy sought is not for the denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion of the IDEA’s procedures is not required. After all, the plaintiff could not get any relief from those procedures: A hearing officer, as just explained, would have to send her away empty-handed. And that is true even when the suit arises directly from a school’s treatment of a child with a disability—and so could be said to relate in some way to her education. A school’s conduct toward such a child—say, some refusal to make an accommodation—might injure her in ways unrelated to a FAPE, which are addressed in statutes other than the IDEA. A complaint seeking redress for those other harms, independent of any FAPE denial, is not subject to §1415(l)’s exhaustion rule because, once again, the only “relief ” the IDEA makes “available” is relief for the denial of a FAPE.[7]

Brief by Paul Clement

There is “no better example of the police power, which the Founders denied the National Government and reposed in the States, than the suppression of violent crime and vindication of its victims.” Morrison, 529 U.S. at 618. “Under our federal system, the ‘States possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law.’” Lopez, 514 U.S. at 561 n.3 (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 635 (1992)); see also Montana v. Engelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 43 (1996) (plurality opinion) (“preventing and dealing with crime is … the business of the States”). None of this is to deny Congress’ ability to enact criminal statutes. But the federal government may step into the States’ traditional criminal realm only when it targets conduct that implicates matters of national or international, not just local, concern. Prohibiting assaults on ambassadors or poll workers or on federal enclaves is one thing; prohibiting assault simpliciter is quite another. “Were the Federal Government to take over the regulation of entire areas of traditional state concern,” rather than limiting its laws to matters of distinctly federal concern, “the boundaries between the spheres of federal and state authority would blur and political responsibility would become illusory.” Lopez, 514 U.S. at 577 (Kennedy, J., concurring).

In keeping with that basic division of power, this Court has never accepted the argument that Congress may regulate criminal conduct with no nexus to matters of federal concern. Despite the gradual expansion of federal authority, this one constant has never changed. Indeed, the Court is typically unwilling to assume that Congress even attempted to “dramatically intrude[] upon traditional state criminal jurisdiction” in this impermissible manner. United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 350 (1971) (construing federal firearms statute not to reach every possession of a firearm); see also Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848, 855 (2000) (construing federal arson statute not to reach every building). And in the rare instances when the inference that Congress actually intended such an intrusion is unavoidable, the Court has not hesitated to hold the law unconstitutional. See, e.g., Lopez, 514 U.S. at 567 (holding unconstitutional federal law that sought to criminalize possession of a gun in a local school zone); Morrison, 529 U.S. at 617 (holding unconstitutional federal law that sought to regulate all gender-motivated crimes of violence).

There can be no serious dispute that a federal effort to criminalize every malicious use of chemicals throughout the Nation could not be reconciled with these fundamental principles. Poisonings and assaults involving harmful substances were not unknown to our founding generation. Yet it would have been unthinkable to the Framers that such matters would be anything other than a state concern. To be sure, there is some small subset of such crimes that touches on matters of federal concern. Even the Framers would recognize that poisoning the French Ambassador or a United States military officer would come within the federal ambit. And more recently, few would doubt that there is a distinct federal interest in eliminating particularly harmful chemicals from interstate commerce, or using chemicals to perpetrate acts of terrorism. But a statute that purported to federalize every malicious use of chemicals, without regard to whether that use has any nexus to a distinct federal interest, would remain a non-starter. When the government candidly conceded that its theory in Lopez would permit the criminalization of every assault, see Oral Argument Tr. 8–9, United States v. Lopez, No. 93- 1260 (1994), the argument was effectively over. To accept any theory of federal power that would permit Congress to usurp the core criminal jurisdiction of the States “would require” this Court “to conclude that the Constitution’s enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated.” Lopez, 514 U.S. at 567.[8]

Conclusion

Focus on transitions when:

  • Your writing feels choppy, jumpy, clunky, or abrupt
  • The section doesn’t “flow”
  • It’s unclear how a point or topic relates to the rest of the section/paragraph or the next point or topic
  • You feel like something is missing[9]

Keep in mind there are many ways to transition: words, phrases, sentence structure. And you may need transitions between sections, paragraphs, or sentences.[10]


[1] Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 86 (2d ed. 2013); Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates 275 (2d ed. 2014); Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 219-227 (2015).

[2] Ross Guberman, “90 Transition Words and Phrases,” Legal Writing Pro, https://legalwritingpro.com/pdf/transition-words.pdf.

[3] Garner, supra n. 1 at 83-87.

[4] Brief for Petitioner at 7; 18; 46, State of Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, 540 U.S. 461 (2004) (No. 02-658) (emphasis added), available at https://www.findlawimages.com/efile/supreme/briefs/02-658/02-658.mer.pet.pdf.

[5] Ross Guberman, “Five Ways to Write Like John Roberts,” Legal Writing Pro https://www.legalwritingpro.com/pdf/john-roberts.pdf.

[6] Id.

[7] Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743, 749; 754-55 (2017) (emphasis added).

[8] Brief for Petitioner at 21-23, Bond v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 2077 (2014) (No. 12-158) (emphasis added), available at http://www.bancroftpllc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/12-158-ts.pdf.

[9] See “Transitions,” The Writing Center University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/transitions/ (last visited Oct. 19, 2018).

[10] Id. For a more thorough handling of how to connect paragraphs using transitions, topic sentences, and concluding sentences see George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure: Writing From the Reader’s Perspective 136-43 (2004).

 

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

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