My favorite words: The importance of transitions

For a while I’ve thought about making a list of my favorite words. I wasn’t sure if those would be words I like because of the way they sound or because they’re a fun or unusual combination of letters or because they have a very specific purpose or because they’re useful in lots of situations or because they’re generally undervalued. You see that a word can be a favorite for any number of reasons.

But when I actually started thinking about the words that I’ve enjoyed using the most lately, I found a common theme. First, I was struck by their normalcy. While words like “kerfuffle” are delightfully specific and playful and almost onomatopoeic, my favorite words are a bit more humble. They also all serve a common purpose in writing: they’re keys to transitions.

Especially when writing about dense, complex, potentially confusing subjects—say, tax laws or insurance fraud—it’s critical for a writer to be as clear as possible. And that means being vigilant about choosing words that help the reader along. Simple language that’s free of jargon helps make a topic less unwieldy, as do words that signal to the reader about the structure or the organization of thoughts—that is, transition words. While the following words may not have the flair of words like “flimflam,” they serve a very important purpose: they make reading easier.

Thus

This word is an oldie. Merriam-Webster says its first known use was before the 12th century. But it’s still incredibly useful today, as in the following example from a McKinsey piece on mobile money in emerging markets:

Even in Norway, for example, the country with the largest share of digital payments globally, 17 percent of all payments are transacted in cash. Thus, to improve profits, providers should look to grow digital transactions even if it means also increasing the number of CICO transactions.

Here you can see how writers can use “thus” to transition from evidence to the point they’re trying to make. Without “thus,” it would be less clear to the reader how the second sentence and the ideas therein connect to the first.

That is

This phrase is probably most useful in clarifying or sharing additional thoughts on a point. That is, you can use it to transition from one thought to another related or more pointed thought. See the following example from a Harvard Business Review article on how to protect against a data breach:

In 2011 Citigroup experienced a data breach of 146,000 customer records and suffered a $1.3 billion stock value loss. According to our analysis, if Citigroup had embraced practices of high transparency and high control, it would have suffered a loss of only about $16 million in stock value. That is, Citigroup might have saved about $820 million had it simply offered its customers high transparency and control.

You can see that in this example, “that is” serves as a sort of pivot, rephrasing the point from how much Citigroup would have lost to how much it would have saved. It creates not only a smooth transition but also a bit of drama with the reveal of the large sum.

Then

This word has a lot of uses and definitions. It can mean in addition, as a consequence, a certain time, and, if you look to social media, you might even think it is interchangeable with “than”! But it’s a less common use that I find helpful in business writing: “then” meaning “in that case.” You can see this use in the following example from a McKinsey article on cyberrisk management:

… And in 2018, Meltdown and Spectre were exposed as perhaps the biggest cyberthreat of all, showing that vulnerabilities are not just in software but hardware too.

Little wonder, then, that risk managers now consider cyberrisk to be the biggest threat to their business.

Even without all the context, you can see that “then” is connecting a new paragraph to the previous paragraph, in which the author listed examples of cyberthreats. In this way it helps transition from the evidence to the larger point, much like the example of “thus” we looked at.

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Ever-changing trends and technologies mean the topics we write and read about change frequently. And while these innovations necessarily spawn new words (think Bitcoin), we can take some comfort in knowing that with diction, some things never change. Words and phrases that have been used for centuries still serve important purposes and can help ease the reading of the most impenetrable topics.

Annie Mullowney

As an editor at Leff, Annie works with the editorial team to turn ideas and insights into substantive content for print and digital formats and to help ensure that client ideas are showcased as part of a comprehensive, integrated messaging strategy.

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