14 July 2011

The importance of transitions

In many ways, I think that the Verbal portion of the SAT is fundamentally about transitions. Or at least the Critical Reading and Essay portions of it. Let me explain what I mean by this: the SAT is essentially designed to test your ability to perceive relationships between ideas and arguments.

Do two piece of information discuss the same idea or different ideas? Does one idea build on or support the previous one, or does it contradict it and move the argument in a new direction? Does it emphasize a point? Refute a point? Explain a point?

Transitions are the signposts, so to speak, that make clear (or elucidate) these relationships. Without words such as “and,” “for example,” and “however,” it becomes much more difficult to tease out just what two words (or sentences or paragraphs or passages) have to do with one another. Transitions are thus where Critical Reading and Writing meet — just aspaying attention to transitions can help you follow an author’s argument in a reading passage, so can including transitions in your own writing help your reader follow your argument.

Remember: your reader should have to exert as little effort as possible to follow your argument. The harder your reader has to work, the lower your score is likely to be. You need to make the relationships among your ideas explicit, whether you’re talking about your championship soccer team from last season or War and Peace.

Here’s an experiment: below are two version of the same passage. I’ve rewritten the first version in order to remove all the transitions. Read it and try to get the gist.

No Transitions

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises. They don’t realize how difficult they are. They respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected. The Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts did this. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt by the exploited laborers, who shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers died. Nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares. He recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. Many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

You probably got the basic point, but you also probably noticed that that there were places where sentences sat side by side with no obvious logical connection to one another (“There were improvements in sanitation. It was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares.”)

While I’ve exaggerated here for effect, I do often see students omit transitions between their thoughts in their essays — particularly between paragraphs — thereby forcing the reader to scramble to re-situate him/herself in the argument. It’s subtler, but there’s always a moment of, “Wait, what is this person actually trying to say here?” Don’t make your reader go through the equivalent of what you just read.

Now try it with transitions:

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises becausethey don’t realize how difficult they actually are, yet respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected, as the Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts were later to do. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal also shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt even by the exploited laborers, who still shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers and nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. Despiteimprovements in sanitation, it was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares, but he also recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. In fact, many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

A lot easier to understand, right?

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