Therefore or However? Choosing and Using the Right Transitional Word
Logical transitions are essential in writing of all kinds, but never more so than in the academic and scientific prose written to report and discuss the methods, results and implications of advanced academic and scientific research. Transitional words and phrases are often necessary to describe complex procedures, share complicated data and convey effective analyses of significant evidence, and they are indispensible when a researcher is constructing a persuasive argument about the meaning of that evidence and the ways in which it advances current knowledge and practice. Using the right transitional words in the right places can increase an author’s ability to express the movement of thought and the relationships between ideas in a sophisticated research-based argument. Using inappropriate transitional words or placing them in the wrong positions tends to misrepresent an author’s ideas and thought processes and can confuse even highly engaged and informed readers.
The adverbs ‘therefore’ and ‘however’ are among the most common of the transitional words used in academic and scientific writing; unfortunately, they are also among the most frequently misused and mispunctuated of transitional words. The first concern when using either one of these words is to ensure that you understand exactly what it means and how it functions. ‘Therefore’ introduces the result or effect of a causal relationship, as it does in this sentence: ‘One of the participants fainted during the second trial; therefore, we took her to the doctor.’ The meaning of ‘therefore’ here is equivalent to ‘for that reason,’ ‘as a result’ or ‘consequently.’ ‘However’ as a transitional word is very different in meaning, presenting as it does an opposition, conflict or qualification of what has come before it. ‘One of the participants fainted during the second trial; however, she refused to go to the doctor’ demonstrates the way in which ‘however’ presents a shift in the expected logic or progress of a situation or thought. Using ‘however’ when a ‘therefore’ transition is needed (One of the participants fainted during the second trial; however, we took her to the doctor) or ‘therefore’ when a ‘however’ construction is required (One of the participants fainted during the second trial; therefore, she refused to go to the doctor) quickly reduces an author’s meaning to nonsense.
Correct punctuation is an important part of the successful effect of transitional words, and ‘therefore’ and ‘however’ are no exception. In the examples above, for instance, these adverbs are used, as they so often are in formal writing, to join independent clauses. However, they cannot be used in this position in the way that conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’ are, with no more than a comma preceding them. Doing so results in the grammatical error known as a comma splice and must be corrected in one of two ways. A semicolon can be used before the transitional adverb, which is the structure I have used in my examples above, or a full stop can be used in the same position, with the transitional adverb opening a new sentence: ‘One of the participants fainted during the second trial. Therefore, we took her to the doctor’ or ‘One of the participants fainted during the second trial. However, she refused to go to the doctor.’ The comma following the transitional word ‘therefore’ in both types of construction provides a pause that is often desirable, but not strictly necessary, so ‘Therefore we took her to the doctor’ is also acceptable and so is ‘We therefore took her to the doctor.’
The comma after the word ‘however,’ on the other hand, is necessary whether the transitional adverb opens a new sentence or is preceded by a semicolon. The importance of the comma after ‘however’ in such constructions becomes clear when the other uses of the adverb are acknowledged. Without a comma after it, the word ‘however’ is used to mean ‘in whatever manner or way,’ ‘to whatever degree or extent,’ ‘no matter how’ or simply ‘how.’ Examples include ‘You can conduct your experiment however you please’ (where ‘however’ means ‘in whatever manner’) and ‘However you do it, the results will be the same’ (where ‘however’ means ‘no matter how’). If no comma were to appear after ‘however’ in a construction like my example about the fainting participant, as in ‘however she refused to go to the doctor,’ the sense would be ‘in whatever manner’ or ‘to whatever extent she refused to go to the doctor,’ which is an entirely different meaning than that achieved with a comma following ‘however.’ Choosing the right transitional word to express exactly what is intended is not the only concern, then. Even the tiniest piece of punctuation can make a significant difference in the success of an author’s logical transitions.
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