One of the most common problems I edit in more advanced writing, particularly non-fiction such as reports, essays and general academic texts, is over-use of bridging words. Everyone suffers from this at some point; even when I edit my own writing I tend to cut out a large number of these words. Adverbial expressions like however, therefore, thus, as such, moreover, indeed and many more are useful to connect different ideas in writing – but they should be used carefully, and sparingly, otherwise they sound repetitive and clumsy. Here’s a quick guide to effective use of these bridging words.
Why we use bridging words
Bridging words create narrative flow. They connect two separate ideas with some sort of relationship. They can be used to connect separate clauses or sentences, or even paragraphs, with more flexibility than a simple conjunction.
- They got to the station on time, but the train had left early.
- They got to the station on time. However, the train had left early.
These two examples have the same meaning, but the bridging word gives us an opportunity to create a contrast without necessarily joining the two sentences. This is useful for creating different flow in your writing or for breaking up larger sentences. It is also useful to create contrasting ideas, for example a ‘however’ sentence may follow a whole paragraph of content, as opposed to connecting one clause. This is why words like thus, therefore and hence tend to be used in academic texts and reports, effectively leading onto conclusions. So what is the problem?
Problems with over-using bridging words
Bridging words appear a lot in writing because you are likely to write slower, and form ideas in writing slower, than you would when reading or talking. This leads to a feeling that you need to bridge your ideas, as they seem separate when you are writing. It is similar to adding expressions like ‘um’ and ‘like’ when people speak – they are used for stalling. If you read your writing back quicker than you wrote it, you’ll find that one idea can flow onto another without these signalling words.
Over-using bridging words creates more of a problem than creating extra words. As they are designed to create relationships between different ideas, incorrect or too many bridging words reduce the impact of individual ideas in writing. Here is a rather crude example:
- The grass was wet. Thus, he slipped over.
- The grass was wet. He slipped over.
The shorter, direct sentence without the bridge word (thus) has a bolder impact. This is a very simplistic example, but the same would be true in more advanced texts. We are well aware that one idea has led to another, but signalling the conclusion with a bridging word often just pads the idea out, removing some of the directness of what you want to say. Which reduces the impact.
This is not just a problem of pacing. As bridging words create links between ideas, they can also reduce the agency of your statements.
- There is a great deal of evidence to suggest bears like honey. Therefore, this study will analyse exactly what the relationship between bears and honey is.
- There is a great deal of evidence to suggest bears like honey. This study will analyse exactly what the relationship between bears and honey is.
In an example like this, you can argue that the second statement follows from the first and should be connected – but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, without the therefore, the purpose of the study becomes a statement in its own right, and as such is more assertive and more definite. The ideas may be connected, but that does not mean the second sentence cannot stand on its own merits – it can, and without the bridging word it is stronger.
When to use bridging words
My general advice in editing writing is to remove all your bridging words. When your instinct is to take them all out, it will quickly become apparent exactly where a bridging word is needed (and you may be surprised at how rare this is). These bridging words should be used when the relationship between ideas needs to be explicit. It is, basically, the reverse of the above – if a statement is stronger without a bridging word, then you should use your bridging words only when you don’t want a statement to stand on its own. For example:
- House prices are rising, thus is it is best to buy property sooner rather than later.
- House prices are rising. It is best to buy property sooner rather than later.
The first version softens the statement, here, making this advice based on the first sentence – one idea leads onto another. The second version is stronger if you are presenting a more general piece of advice; it is an assertive statement. In this example, the use of thus is clear if the second sentence is based entirely on the first, a self-contained conclusion.
As you may see, though the concept of bridging words seems simple, knowing when to use them may take practice. In many cases it is a matter of style, rather than a clear issue of right and wrong use – but if you pay attention to how you use these words in your own writing you will start to develop more of a feel for when they can be removed. And when you do, your writing will become a lot tighter, more direct and stronger. If you have any specific examples you would like to discuss, please let me know in the comments below – I have used quite simplistic examples here, they are no substitute for editing real text.