Discourse connectors (overview)
Discourse connectors, also known as connectives or transitionals, are words that connect phrases, clauses, sentences, and ideas, such as but, and, so, then, although and numerous others. They are crucial for establishing coherence, or logical flow of sentences, clauses, and ideas, in written or spoken discourse. This overview page presents different linguistic categories of connectors. Other pages (forthcoming) will provide detailed lists of connectors, discussion of pedagogy, and problems of ESL/EFL students with English connectors. See also Swales & Feak (2004).
- 1 Overview
- 2 Discourse functions
- 3 Syntactic categories
- 4 Logical connectors
- 5 Pragmatic categories
- 6 See also
Coherence refers to the flow of ideas, clauses and sentences in writing. In addition to simple words and phrases used as transitionals (conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and such), other words and other structures serve transitional functions. In addition to transitionals, some words indicate logical connectedness between items being discussed, or coherence1. The most common forms for maintaining this kind of flow are illustrated below.
Also called connectives or connectors, these are single words or short phrases that connect ideas, clauses and sentences. Some are pure conjunctions (but, though, and), while others were adverbs that came to be used like conjunctions (furthermore, therefore, thus, however). Various types are used for managing the flow of ideas and making this clear to readers, such as contrastive markers (but, although, however), additive or sequential markers (and, afterwards, then), emphatic markers (even, especially, particularly), and others.
Connectors include most conjunctions, as well as conjunctive adverbs and other expressions that have been pressed into service as connectors. Most of these connectors are also called discourse markers, which refers to those that do not crucially affect the truth value of the clause or sentence. In other words, conjunctions like if, whether, unless, before would be excluded from the category of discourse markers, as they negative or significantly limit the truth value of their clauses.
Discourse particles are differentiated as a separate category, due to their unique grammatical and pragmatic features; these include terms such as like, well, oh, I mean, etc.
See below for pedagogical handouts for teachers and students.
2 Discourse functions
Consider the following versions of these sentences. In what way do the sound differently or flow differently?
- 1a. I ran the simulation, and then the problem became apparent.
- 1b. After I ran the simulation, the problem became apparent.
- 2a. We ran 40 subjects in the experiment, but it yielded no conclusive results.
- 3b. Although we ran 40 subjects in the experiment, it yielded no conclusive results.
- 3a. Gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, so it was entered as a control variable.
- 3b. Because gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, it was entered as a control variable.
The difference between the A-versions and B-versions are grammatical, and these differences affect the style and flow. The A-versions consist of two conjoined main (independent) clauses, while the B-versions use a subordinate (dependent) clause. Connectors make for better flow, and sometimes the choice of connectors affects the type of flow. Items 2-4 above contrast two grammatical types: coordinating conjunctions, which simply connect two ideas or phrases, and subordinating conjunctions, which grammatically subordinate one clause to another. Coordinating conjunctions put both phrases in the foreground of the flow, while subordinating conjunctions put less emphasis on one phrase by backgrounding it. Consider the following scene1; in the top picture, the trainyard is backgrounded, while it is focused in the bottom. Consider the following optical illusions. What you see depends on what you focus on.
What you focus on is the foreground of your attention; what is not in focus is background. Likewise, when we read, some phrases receive more attention than others, and this contributes to the flow of the writing and information. Writers can manipulate this by using some connectives to put more focus or emphasis on some items, and can use other connectors to put some items in the background of readers’ attention.
Coordinating conjunctions foreground both phrases, while many subordinating conjunctions background the subordinate (dependent) clauses1. That is, they draw readers’ attention to the main clauses, but less attention to the subordinate clauses. Some adverbial words also work like conjunctions, and these often foreground both phrases. The more common connectors and, so, but, or actually provide very weak foregrounding, while many others have more specific meanings and provide stronger foregrounding.
|Foregrounding connectors||Backgrounding connectors|
|furthermore, in addition
but, however, yet
although, though, while
2.1 Comma patterns
Due to the discourse functions of different kinds of conjunctions, and how these are pronounced in spoken English with or without pauses, the following patterns need to be heeded.
- Comma pattern for so, then, but
There is usually no comma after these words (except for emphasis in very informal writing; or if a clause intervenes between the conjunction and the clause that it refers to, e.g., “But, if you say so, we will postpone the impact analysis until the full team can meet.”)
- Comma patterns for however, therefore, moreover, furthermore
If these conjunctions begin a clause or sentence, they are set off with a comma, e.g., “However, we found results contrary to what was previously reported.”
A couple of these can be the second word of a clause, and in that case, however is usually set off with commas, while commas for therefore is optional, usually for emphasis: “That, however, was not the case” and “We therefore decided on a follow-up experiment.” See the next section on this.
- Non-initial connectors
Some connectors come come after the sentence subject or other phrase, i.e., not in sentence-initial position. How do these affect the flow? (Note that thus does not necessarily require commas when non-initial.)
- As an adult, however, learning a foreign language was his own decision, and so that strong motivation was essential to maintain and achieve his goals.
- Unlike the traditional research findings, however, instrumentality was not as significant a variable as for other age groups.
- It is appropriate, then, to attempt to identify some systematic role for bilingualism in the disparate literature on the acquisition of literacy.
- The historical evidence thus does not support the standard hypothesis.
Here are examples of the usage of these connectors from actual academic writing samples.
- One argument favors non-word primes, because real word primes also induce competition between two words, an effect that is obviated by non-word primes.
- Such results would be more consistent with a DRC model, in which the processor takes advantage of whatever kind of information is present in the orthography. Furthermore, such results would also be inconsistent with a pure PDP model, in which every component contributes simultaneously, regardless of function, and varying effects of component types would not be expected to affect behavioral data.
- This model, however, is designed primarily for processing multimorphemic words, and has not been applied to single character-level recognition. Moreover, its application to character-level recognition does not seem entirely clear, as it does not seem to make specific predictions about the time course of different types of linguistic information in processing. However, it may yield some insight into the complexity of the linguistic information found in Experiments 1-4.
- Another option is the multi-route model, namely, the multilevel interactive activation model (Taft et al., 1999), which posits interactive connections between orthography, semantics, phonology, and morphology. This model, however, is designed primarily for processing multimorphemic words, and has not been applied to single character-level recognition.
- Sentence topics, as informationally old items in a discourse context, are active in working memory, and they are therefore readily more accessible.
3 Syntactic categories
Connectors can be divided into more traditional grammatical categories as follows. For more on the difference in usage between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, see the section on pragmatics below.
3.1 Coordinating conjunctions
These coordinate two clauses or verb phrases, or smaller units, such as two nouns (e.g., cat and mouse), adjectives (e.g., good and bad), or other word types, e.g.:
- and, or, but, yet, just as, such as, also, both...and, either...or
Some teachers use mnemonics so students can recall the co-ordinating conjunctions, such as FANBOYS for these coordinators: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
The paired conjunctions like both...and and either...or are traditionally known as correlatives.
3.2 Subordinating conjunctions
These subordinate a dependent clause to a main clause, and are distinguished from subordinators that are not connectors in the normal sense (like relative pronouns and complementizer particles such as that).
- after, before, although, as, while, whereas, since, because
3.3 Conjunctive adverbs
These are adverbs that have taken on the function of conjoining clauses, e.g.:
- however, furthermore, therefore, thus
3.4 Sentence adverbs
These adverbs, also known as sentential adverbs, express the speaker's assessment of the whole sentence, and are similar to (if not slightly overlapping with) the conjunctive adverbs. They are set apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma in writing, or a slight intonational rise or juncture in speaking. These can sometimes come at the end of the sentence, especially in colloquial style, as more of an afterthought without the nuance of emphasis.
- Most common: Naturally, Incidentally, Thankfully, Regrettably, Fortunately, Apparently, Especially
- Others: actually, apparently, basically, by the way, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, especially, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, hypothetically, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, oddly, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, unfortunately, wisely
Apparently, an overwhelming majority in the Senate would be assured, if they can win seats in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Mississippi.
Thankfully, the check arrived on time. Unfortunately, the package had been misdirected to the wrong city, and in the process the contents were damaged.
Compare this to the flow of a sentence like “...the contents were damaged, unfortunately” – in such a sentence, the adverb is added at the end, like an afterthought. A sentence adverb at the end tends to sound more colloquial, and as an afterthought, it has a bit more emphasis, which breaks the flow more.
3.5 Emphatic adverbs
These emphasize the particular word that they modify.
- Even, only, merely, especially, particularly
The adverb especially is also used as a sentence adverb at the beginning of the sentence. However, if it modifies the whole sentence as a sentence adverb, this is colloquial or informal style, and is dispreferred in academic writing. In formal writing, it can occur sentence-initially only if it modifies a following adjective or other word. That is, especially sentence-initially is fine in formal style if used only as an emphatic adverb, not as a sentence adverb. If it is used as an emphatic sentence adverb, this interrupts the natural flow of academic prose, as it emphasizes and calls attention to the whole clause (like raising one's voice or typing in all capital letters - excessive emphasis on an entire clause). Instead, moving it to only modify a single word in the sentence, or replacing it with the less emphatic particularly / in particular would be better options.
- The information is various from the exchange rate and stock prices and to the current of national economy. Especially, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (colloquial)
- ... Economic predictions are especially useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (better academic style; especially is only an emphatic adverb, modifying only useful)
- ... In particular, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (also better for academic style)
Prepositions can serve as transitionals, particularly prepositional phrases, compound prepositions, and phrases derived from participle plus preposition.
1. Compound prepositions
- because of, due to, except for
2. Participle plus preposition
- based on, according to, depending on
3. Prepositional phrase
- in light of, as a consequence of, in addition to
3.7 Other phrases
Other multi-word expressions have come to be used as transitionals, e.g.,
- this instant, as a matter of fact, as mentioned previously, last but not least, that is to say, in other words, to put it mildly, to repeat
4 Logical connectors
These are semantic-pragmatic categories from more traditional genre-based approaches to writing instruction, based particularly on the genres or discourse forms of particular paragraph types. See here for a full logical connectors list
- Time and sequence: and, then
- Addition: and, also, too
- Repetition, emphasis: as mentioned, the aforementioned, that is, that is to say, to repeat
- Exception: other than, except for
- Example: e.g., for example, like, as, for instance
- Reason, purpose: because, since, in order to
- Result: so, thus, as a result, hence
- Condition: in case, if, whether, in case (of)
- Concession (weaker contrast) but, yet, although, while
- Contrast: but, however, on the other hand, whereas
- Comparison: as, just as, likewise, in like manner, similarly
- Summary: in conclusion, in sum, overall
- Enumeratives: first, second, third
4.1 Enumerative or ordinal transitionals
These are terms like "first, second, third," etc. Forms like "first, second, third" are more North American style, while "firstly, secondly, thirdly..." are more British style. One should not mix the British and American terms inconsistently, and in academic writing it is better to avoid the colloquial "first of all." In English academic writing, these ordinal transitionals are less commonly used, and are more common in less formal writing (or on essay exams). In academic writing, using these regularly can make the writing sound mechanical, artificial or formulaic, so these should be used conservatively, e.g., when explaining more complex or abstract sequences of ideas that may be more difficult for the reader to follow. Otherwise, it is sufficient to start sentences with full noun subjects without these ordinal transition, and the logical flow would generally be sufficiently clear in academic writing.
5 Pragmatic categories
The following discourse markers also function like connectors, but at a more discoursal level. See the discourse markers page for more.
- Topical adverbs
Some adverbials function like sentence adverbs, but also serve topic transitional functions, signalling a shift or focusing in topic. Topical adverbs (this is my own name for them – this is not a standard term) are somewhat similar to sentence adverbs, except that they function to identify or qualify the topic of the coming clause. This adverb is similar to a normal adverb within a sentence, but moved to the beginning to make the topic more explicit, to emphasize the speaker's point, to give it more prominence, to shift the topic to a new but somewhat related topic, or to avoid too many other adverbs inside the sentence.
- Economically, this would be infeasible to implement while the markets are too unstable. (cf. "This would be economically infeasible to implement")
- Politically, it would be unwise for the senator to suddenly propose such an outrageously expensive funding project at an economically depressed time as this.
Many words could be used like this, such as these, and many others, such as adverbs related to specific topics or fields of study:
- scientifically, mathematically, artistically, financially, intellectually, philosophically, computationally, psychologically, economically, politically, intellectually, biologically, environmentally, presently, evolutionarily, emotionally
- Topic shift markers
Some words are used to manage shifts to new topics, or shifting back to previously mentioned topics (reshifts). In colloquial English and narratives, now can be used for new topics or reshifts; anyway can be used colloquially for reshifts. In various kinds of contexts, as to, as for, as regards, regarding, etc. can be used for reshifts, but in academic writing these are less common; one should be careful not to overuse these to avoid sounding stylistically too mechanical, artificial, colloquial, or formulaic.
- Now, as I was saying...
- As for the unresolved matter of late orders, we've decided to consult with the home office.
- As regards your proposal, we currently cannot undertake such a complex project.
- Presentational there is/are
Sentences beginning with there is or there are function to present or introduce new topics (e.g., sentence subjects) to the discussion.
- There's a unicorn in my garden!
- There's not much that can be done about this problem.
This is more common in informal writing or conversation. In academic writing, there is/are is less commonly used. Instead, academic writers simply start a new sentence with a full noun subject, or begin a new paragraph for a more significant topic shift.
- The situation seems serious, but unfortunately, not much can be done about this problem at this time.
6 See also
- See also
6.1 Pedagogical handouts
The following are PDFs for teachers and students
- Connectives chart: Some common transitionals
- A landscape version of the above chart
- A handout version of the above chart
- Intro to transitionals
- Coherence devices for logical flow
- Cohesive devices for connections among words, word flow, and clear wording
- Transitionals problemata: Common problems that East Asians students have with connectors / transitionals