Transitions are one of the most common and trickiest rhetorical topics tested on the ACT English section. However, there are a couple simple rules that can make answering these questions much easier.
In this post, I'll cover everything you need to know to approach all three types of transition question:
- Types of transitional relationships
- Transitions between sentences
- Transitions between clauses
- Transitions between paragraphs
- Key strategies for transitions on ACT English questions
3 Types of Transitions
The ACT covers three basic transitional relationships: addition, contrast, and causation. Understanding how these relationships work will be very helpful for the test.
Addition: Words like "also" and "moreover" that indicate continuation of or elaboration on a thought.
Contrast: Words like "however" and "still" that introduce a conflicting point or idea.
Causation: Words like "so" and "because" that indicate a causal relationship.
Let's look at some examples in context:
Addition: Dorian Gray couldn't be killed. In addition, he never aged.
Contrast: Vanessa knew Ethan was a werewolf. However, she was unconcerned.
Causation: Frankenstein's monster threatened to hurt him if he didn't build the monster a mate, so Frankenstein did as he was told.
Keep in mind that not every transition falls into one of these categories. They're more what you'd call guidelines, than actual rules.
Nonetheless, thinking about transitions in these terms can help you pick out the right answer on ACT English questions, as you'll see below.
Transitions Between Sentences
The most common type of transition question on the ACT deals with picking the correct transition word to place between two sentences. For example:
Malcom and Sam were best friends. Even so, they spent every moment of the day together.
Something about this transition doesn't quite make sense. "Even so" is a contrast transition, but these to sentences aren't opposed to each other: if Malcom and Sam are best friends, it makes perfect sense that they would spend every day together. Instead it would make more sense to use a causation transition, or even drop the transition word completely:
Malcom and Sam were best friends. As such, they spent every moment of the day together.
Malcom and Sam were best friends. They spent every moment of the day together.
We're going to cover a step-by-step approach, key transition words, and some helpful ACT English tips for questions about connecting sentences.
Let's got through how to approach sentence transition questions step-by-step:
#1: Cross out the underlined word. Always start by crossing out the word that’s there. Otherwise, if it's not obviously wrong, you may be biased in favor of the original phrasing.
#2: Read to the end of the sentence. You should be doing this on every question, but it's especially important here to make sure you understand how the two sentences are related to each other.
#3: Does anything seem obviously necessary/correct? Sometimes you'll read the two sentences and immediately recognize what word you would use—that specific transition may not be a choice, but you can look for synonyms.
#4: What type of relationship is it? Addition, contrast, or causation? If you're not sure, it can be helpful to think about whether you would connect the sentences with and (addition), but (contrast), or so/because (contrast).
#5: Narrow down your choices. Once you have a sense of what you're looking for, rule out any answers that don't make sense or that aren't grammatical.
#6: Plug answer into sentence to check. When you think you have the answer, plug it into the sentence and make sure the transition is logical.
We'll walk through this process with an example shortly, but first let's go over some key words and strategies that you need to know.
Transitions between sentences are generally conjunctive adverbs, like "however" and "furthermore," or prepositional phrases, like "for example" and "on the other hand." You can see the most common ones below, sorted by type.
|On the other hand
|As a result
|In other words
As I mentioned above, not every question will involve these types of transitions. Occasionally, you'll see other phrases or adverbs, like "in general" or unfortunately," or constructions that are specific to the context.
You may also see options that are grammatically incorrect. These will generally be coordinating or subordinating conjunctions (see the chart below for examples), which can't be used immediately before a comma to introduce a complete sentence.
Beyond the basic concepts we've discussed, there are some ACT English-specific tips that can really help you approach transition questions.
If two choices are synonyms, neither is correct. If two of the words mean the same thing (they must be synonyms, not just belong to the same category), there's no way to choose between them, so neither can be correct. When you see two choices that are synonyms, rule them both out.
If one of the choices omits the transition word altogether, that's usually the correct answer. Always check any answer that leaves the transition word out first—if the paragraph works without it, that's the right answer.
Transition words don't necessarily come at the beginning of the sentence. Sometimes, for example, you'll see them moved into a sentence like this one. keep in mind that they must be surrounded by commas and can't be used to connect two independent clauses without a period or semicolon.
Don't panic if the three categories don't apply. Not every question deals with transitions that fit into the categories outlined above. Simply use the rest of the strategy (thinking about how the two sentences are related, narrowing down choices that don't make sense, and then plugging in the answer you think is right to check) to pick out the best answer.
Watch out for questions that ask for the LEAST acceptable option. Make sure to use process of elimination to rule out any answer that does work.
Real ACT Practice Question
We've covered a lot of material on transitions—let's put it into practice on a real ACT question.
This example is a case where the transition has been shifted into the sentence, but we'll approach it in the same way. The first step is to look at the two sentences without the transition:
Snowflakes form from tiny water droplets, following a specific process of chemical bonding as they freeze, which results in a six-sided figure. The rare "triangular" snowflake confounded scientists for years because it apparently defied the basic laws of chemistry.
Does an obvious transition jump out at you? Not really. On to the next question!
How are these sentences related to each other? The first sentence describes how snowflakes are formed. The second brings up a seeming exception to that rule. This relationship is contrasting.
Rule out answers that don't work. "Additionally" and "similarly" are too similar to choose between, so both must be wrong. "For example" doesn't make sense, since the second sentence is actually about an exception to the rule laid out in the first, not an example of it.
Plug in the remaining choice. We have only "however," which is a contrast transition, left. Let's try it out in context:
Snowflakes form from tiny water droplets, following a specific process of chemical bonding as they freeze, which results in a six-sided figure. The rare "triangular" snowflake, however, confounded scientists for years because it apparently defied the basic laws of chemistry.
That transition makes sense, so J must be the correct answer.
Transitions Between Clauses
Questions dealing with transitions between clauses are very similar to those about transitions between sentences, so you can use the same approach. However, these questions involve a different set of transition words: coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.
You may see questions that mix up the different types of transitions and attempt to use a conjunction for connecting clauses to introduce a sentence or a conjunctive adverb to connect two clauses—these answers will be incorrect.
Issues with transitions between clauses may also be tested in conjunction with correctly connecting independent clauses, so watch out for punctuation as well. (For more details on connecting independent clauses, check out our post on run-ons and fragments.)
Let's use the strategy above to answer a real ACT example that asks about transitions between clauses:
First we have to look at the underlined word and answer choices and recognize that these subordinating conjunctions, so this a question about connecting clauses and not sentences.
Next, let's cut out the current transition word and break the sentence into its two component clauses (I'm also going to eliminate the descriptor at the end for simplicity):
There's not much chance that a seven-year-old just learning the game can hit a pitched baseball
The umpire puts the ball on top of a stationary tee
Does an obvious transition jump out at you? I would use "so" or "because" to connect these two ideas.
How are these sentences related to each other? Those transitions jump out at me because the idea in the first clause (that a seven-year-old can't hit a pitched baseball) clearly leads to the solution in the second (putting the ball on a tee). This connection is a causal relationship.
Rule out answers that don't work. Neither "while" nor "although" can work because they're interchangeable (and both contrast transitions). "Unless" doesn't make sense.
Plug in the remaining choice. Process of elimination leaves only "since," which is a causation transition. Looking at the sentence as written, we can see that it makes sense, so A is the correct answer.
Transitions Between Paragraphs
The final type of transition question deals with transitions between paragraphs. Rather than asking about a specific word or phrase, these usually deal with full sentences and will be phrased similarly to the following examples:
Given that all of the choices are true, which one would most effectively introduce the main idea of this paragraph?
Which of the following sentences offers the best introduction to this paragraph?
The exact phrasing may vary, but these types of questions always ask about "transition" or "introduction."
Because it's impossible to predict the content of an entire paragraph, it's vital that you use process of elimination for questions that ask about transitions between paragraphs. Here's a step-by-step approach to help you narrow down your choices.
#1:Pay attention to what the question is asking for. Though many of these questions simply ask for the sentence that provides the best transition or introduction, some may give a more specific. Make sure to read the question carefully and think about what it's asking.
#2: Read into the paragraph at least a couple of sentences. Ideally, you'll read the whole paragraph before answering transition questions, but you absolutely must read at least one sentence after the first to get a sense of the context.
#3: Keep in mind types of transitional relationships. Though most of these questions don't involve transition words, it can still be helpful to consider whether there's a clear contrasting or causal relationship.
#4: Look for anything that needs to be introduced because it's referred back to later in the paragraph. In the subsequent sentences, look out for pronouns like this and these that reference ideas or nouns that need to be introduced in the first sentence. This will often be the best hint for the correct answer.
#5: Narrow down the choices. Rule out answers that don’t make sense or don’t fit with the general tone of the passage.
#6: Plug in the sentence you think works best. When you've eliminated three choices, read the last answer in context and check that it makes sense.
Not all of these steps will apply to every question—the important thing is to think about these ideas as you work to rule out choices.
Real ACT Practice Question
Let's walk through how to approach a paragraph transition question from a real ACT.
What is the question asking for? The best transition between the paragraphs.
Read both paragraphs. The first paragraph describes Quezada's discovery of and interest in the ancient pots. The second paragraph details his attempts to recreate them.
Is there anything referenced later in the paragraph that needs to be introduced? The sentence that currently opens the paragraph mentions "the clay" without really explaining which clay it's talking about.
Narrow down choices. We can immediately rule out F, because it's about the town and not the pottery, which is the topic of these two paragraphs. G and J are both relevant to the topic of the ancient pottery, but neither makes sense as a transition. The patterns are initially described earlier in the passage, and Quezada's painting doesn't come up until later in the second paragraph.
Plug in the remaining option. Let's look at the passage with H, the only remaining option, plugged in.
Quezada began working with clay from the mountains. He dug the clay, soaked it, and tried to shape it into a pot.
The underlined sentence makes sense as a transition, so H is the correct answer.
Summary of Key Strategies for Transitions on ACT English
Though transition questions can vary pretty widely, you should always use process of elimination to narrow down the possibilities. I've rounded up the most important tips from the in depth discussion above.
Consider the type of transitional relationship. Thinking about how the sentences or paragraphs are related to each other is key to understanding how best to transition between them.
Read the question carefully. Any time there's a written out question, make sure you know what it's asking for—don't make assumptions. Similarly, make sure you always read enough of the passage to understand the context.
Use multiple choice to your advantage:
If two answers are synonyms, neither is correct.
If one answer has no transition word, that’s usually the correct one.
Plug in the answer you think is best to check. Always make sure that an answer makes in context. If nothing else, this technique will help keep you from picking answers that indicate the right type of transition, but don't fit into the sentence grammatically.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?
Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.
Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this English lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.
Check out our 5-day free trial:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.