In addition to unity, a paragraph needs internal coherence. Coherence can be achieved in several ways; if you’re just learning to write arguments, your best method is to use semantic transitions. In general, semantic transitions show the relations between sentences within a paragraph; they express the “syntax” of your paragraph and your thinking. They are not, therefore, merely useful because they add “smoothness” or “flow” to your paragraph; rather, they are essential, because they are the way you guide your audience through the steps of your argument. If the reader gets lost, she will not be persuaded.*
The ways in which you can effect transition are limited, but each way, as with the transitions in Dr. Syntax 4, alters the relation (a sort of “syntax”) between sentences and therefore embodies a different meaning. Here are some possibilities:
- example or illustration:
- Greta had many friends. Siegfried, for instance, was one of them.
- Greta had many friends. She also knew who they were.
- modification of various kinds:
- Greta had many friends. However, she did not always know who they were.
- Greta had many friends. But she didn’t know who they were.
- specification or moving from the general to the specific:
- Greta was sure she had many friends. Specifically, she felt confident that Siegfried was one of them.
- Greta was surrounded by friends. Therefore, she was very happy.
By skillful use of parallel structure and verbs, good writers can of course imply the relations between sentences without using explicit semantic transitions. (See the paragraphs from Hutchins, for instance, in the last exercise.) In the interests of style, in fact, a good writer doesn’t necessarily want a semantic transition in every sentence and certainly doesn’t want semantic transitions in the same position in every sentence of a paragraph. Style, however, is less important than content.
But the chances are fairly good that you’re not yet a skilled writer of arguments. As a very practical exercise, therefore, I want you for the rest of the semester to supply semantic transitions between all of your sentences in the next to final drafts of your arguments. You’ll see that semantic transitions can be a major tool in revising.
If you don’t have a semantic transition between two sentences in your next to final draft, how do you find one? You can come up with the appropriate one by asking yourself “what is the relation between the idea in this sentence and the idea in my last sentence?” That is, you step back from your sentences and account not for the specifics of what two sentences say, but for their general thought relation with one another. Of course, it’s possible that you won’t be able to come up with a semantic transition.
If you can’t, you may have discovered that you’ve got an irrelevant sentence, a sentence whose structure doesn’t accurately reflect what you mean to say, or a sentence which is in the wrong position in the paragraph. In a word, thinking about semantic transitions can be the key to discovering–and therefore correcting–any number of problems with your argument.
Once you’ve got all of the relations clarified, you can then think about style and see which semantic transitions you can eliminate. Where is your writing so clear that the semantic relation can be left implicit? A rule of thumb is that you don’t need semantic transitions when your thoughts are continuing in the same direction.
Exercise: In each of the four paragraphs of “5. Topic Sentence,” underline the semantic transitions in every sentence. These semantic transitions show the thought relations between pairs of sentences. In those sentences without explicit semantic transitions, supply ones that properly express the relations between sentences. I want you to focus here on those relations, not on relations between clauses within a single sentence. Set aside those semantic transitions in Fahnstock’s chart that can only work internally, for instance, to show relations in complex sentences. We dealt with those transitions in Dr. Syntax 4.
* In addition to semantic transitions, you might use lexical transitions, although these words express less than do the first. Basically, lexical transitions restate or point to, in a variety of ways (simple repetition, use of synonyms, use of pronouns or demonstrative adjectives), something already stated.