Are You Ready for the SAT & ACT?

Power of the “Word”

A Little Bit of This and a Little Bit of That: Topic Sentences and Transitions

Your English teachers have certainly reminded you of the importance of transitions in your writing. Some teachers might even deduct points or grades from papers that lack these transitions. Sometimes these transitions will be numerical (e.g., first, second, third,); sometimes they’ll be a little more generic (e.g., next, later, then,); sometimes they’ll state contrasts (e.g., on the other hand, however,); or continuities (e.g., for example, furthermore,). In many of the things you read on the SAT and ACT, the transitions can be a little more complex or subtle.

So what’s the big deal? Why all this emphasis on transitions?

Let’s put it as simply as we can: Transitions show the organization of ideas in a paper. Good, clear writing is nearly impossible without good transitions. The things you read on the SAT and ACT (and in many of your high-school and college classes) will nearly always have solid transitions that can help to orient you, the reader, within a piece of writing.

The best transitions are those that link one idea to another. Rather than a word that says, “Here’s a new idea,” the best transitions will say, “Here’s a little of what I’ve been talking about, and here’s the next idea that follows from it.” If you can spot these transitions, you’ll have a clearer sense of what comes before and after them.

Here’s a topic sentence from an essay on psychoanalysis.

By the 1960s, however, Freud’s ideas had a firm hold in popular American cultural life.

Let’s apply some of what we learned in the previous section on sentences. Pay particular attention to the language and phrasing. Use these words and phrases to predict what the previous paragraph was about and what this new paragraph will be about.

The word however tells us right away that this paragraph will be about something in contrast to the previous one. We know, therefore, that the rest of the sentence will be a contrast to something that comes before: By the 1960s, Freud’s ideas had a firm hold in popular American cultural life.

Then By the 1960s tells us that the previous paragraph must’ve been about an earlier period. Earlier paragraphs must have been about earlier decades. This paragraph will discuss the influence of Freudian ideas in the 1960s, and later paragraphs will likely go on to discuss later decades.

From this sentence, we also learn that Freud’s ideas had a firm hold in popular American cultural life. Bear in mind that this is a contrast, so the earlier paragraphs must have discussed a time when Freud’s ideas did not have this hold, either because people did not know about them or they actively disagreed with these ideas. The following paragraphs will go on to discuss the hold of these Freudian ideas in decades after the 1960s.

Think about what we’ve done here. We’ve built a large part of the essay from a single sentence! We were able to do this because of that sentence’s place within a particular paragraph. In a well-constructed non-fiction essay—the type of essay you’ll read on the SAT or ACT—the basic outline of the essay, the basic organization of ideas, will appear in the topic sentences.

In the following exercise, use the given sentence to predict what the previous paragraph was about.

1. Many cultural historians suggest that the contemporary attitude toward personifying pets grew out of this shift toward having children at a later age.

a)    The previous paragraph discusses the dominant cultural attitudes toward pets in the United States.

b)    The previous paragraph discusses the shift from adults having children in their early 20s to adults having children in their early 30s.

c)    The previous paragraph discusses the role that cultural historians have played in how pets are treated in the average household.

d)    The previous paragraph discusses the history of domesticated pets in the United States.

2. But once the Washington Nationals drafted Lee Strasberg, the franchise turned around.

a)    The previous paragraph discusses the reasons for the Washington Nationals’ continued success in the league.

b)    The previous paragraph discusses Lee Strasberg’s life before he started playing baseball.

c)    The previous paragraph discusses the ways that Lee Strasberg helped to improve the team.

d)    The previous paragraph discusses the ill fortunes of the Washington Nationals before the team drafted Lee Strasberg.

3. In the 1890s, furthermore, many other organizations were being founded that rivaled the influence of the American Folklore Society.

a)    The previous paragraph discusses the influence of the American Folklore Society.

b)    The previous paragraph discusses the conditions in the 1890s that produced the American Folklore Society.

c)    The previous paragraph discusses the other organizations that were founded at the same time as the American Folklore Society.

d)    The previous paragraph discusses the history of folklore studies in the United States.

4. All of this changed in the 1960s when Benjamin Quarles republished Frederick Douglass’s Narrative.

a)    The previous paragraph discusses the major publications that were popular in the 1950s.

b)    The previous paragraph discusses the conditions that would eventually be altered by the publication of Douglass’s narrative.

c)    The previous paragraph discusses the important changes that the publication of Frederick Douglass’s narrative made possible.

d)    The previous paragraph discusses Frederick Douglass’s life and work.

5. It wouldn’t be long before the Whig Party got another chance at the White House.

a)    The previous paragraph discusses the basic ideas of which the Whig Party was in favor.

b)    The previous paragraph discusses the connections between the Whig Party and the contemporary Democrats.

c)    The previous paragraph discusses what the Whig Party did when it gained the White House.

d)    The previous paragraph discusses one of the Whig Party’s earlier losses.

In this exercise, read the two sentences carefully. Choose a topic sentence that links the two of them most effectively.

6. It was just more evidence that I prefer soft mattresses to firm ones.

____________________. Now I can’t remember what a soft mattress even feels like.

a)    Throughout my whole life, I’ve had trouble sleeping.

b)    Last year, I frankly didn’t care what kind of mattress I slept on.

c)    But then I bought the firm mattress I still have today.

d)    Firm mattress are actually better for people with bad backs.

7. Certainly, most great musicians will practice many hours a day.

___________________. Many of them could play their instruments before they could read or write.

a)    Some theorize that it takes 10,000 hours to become an “expert” at something.

b)    Still, we can’t overlook the natural ability of many of the greatest musicians.

c)    And many musicians like to practice more than they like to play to audiences.

d)    But that doesn’t mean that they like it.

8. It was conventional wisdom for many years that disease came from some imbalance within the human being him- or herself.

_________________. For example, waterways, especially those that were heavily used, could be seriously contagious, even for people who weren’t bathing in them.

a)    The black plague ripped through many communities in the Middle Ages.

b)    Today, however, we’ve got penicillin and other drugs to attack those diseases.

c)    People didn’t shower as much back then, and restroom facilities were basically non-existent.

d)    In time, though, scientists realized that diseases were made of particles that traveled in unsuspected ways.

9. The house mouse’s omnivorous diet means it can survive on just about anything.

_________________. Believe it or not, the average house mouse can fit noiselessly through a hole the size of a U.S. dime.

a)    As it turns out, mice eat a lot more than cheese!

b)    This survival is also aided by the mouse’s ability to travel indoors undetected.

c)    Humane traps are becoming much more popular than the old, fatal mousetraps.

d)    Mice are tiny animals, but they can make themselves smaller than you’d think.

10. Often, American tourists are surprised by the difference between the food in China and the “Chinese” food they get in American restaurants.

_________________. Indian-Chinese restaurants, for example, serve Chinese food as it is prepared in India.

a)    India and China share a border just to the northeast of New Delhi.

b)    American tourists have a similar experience when they travel to India.

c)    In fact, Chinese food seems to have adapted to the cuisine in many different countries.

d)    China does not have the problems with obesity that the United States does.

11. As editor of McClures, Willa Cather ultimately learned the tools of her literary trade.

_________________. She ultimately resigned from the position, hoping to devote herself full-time to writing fiction.

a)    McClures was one of many high-cultural publications at the turn of the century.

b)    Cather was well-respected as the editor of McClures, but she had bigger plans.

c)    Willa Cather’s best-known novel is My Antonia, first published in 1918.

d)    Cather had come a long way from her humble beginnings in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

12. While texting and driving one afternoon, Johnny got into a huge accident and wrecked his car.

_________________. He swore from that day on that he would never text and drive again.

a)    He was uninsured, so all the costs fell to him.

b)    The skies were clear, but the traffic was really bad.

c)    Texting while driving is responsible for many accidents.

d)    With this wake-up call, Johnny had finally learned his lesson.

13. One famous story has a director forcing him, at gunpoint, to learn his lines.

_________________. Who can forget his incredible turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire?

a)    Marlon Brando was a star of stage and screen.

b)    Marlon Brando also had problems with Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the great star in Apocalypse Now.

c)    For all the problems that he caused, however, Marlon Brando was truly one of the greatest actors of all time.

d)    Under threat of death, Brando eventually learned the lines.

14. All you really need is a ball and court, and even if you’re just starting, you can get a great workout.

_________________. It’s actually very strategic, and the best players are those who can read the angle of the ball and maintain good tactical positioning.

a)    Racquetball may be easy to learn, but it is very difficult to master.

b)    Racquetball is an indoor racquet sport and was very popular in the 1970s.

c)    Racquetball is fast, and it really stings when the ball hits you.

d)    Racquetball is a great sport for beginners.

15. Audiences didn’t always get his jokes, but they loved tuning in to Fred Allen’s show on Sundays.

_________________. Many of the sponsors would take issue with Allen’s commercials, which the sponsors felt were making fun of the products they wanted to sell.

a)    Fred Allen had a famous feud with contemporary radio comedian Jack Benny.

b)    Most radio programs in the 1930s and 1940s had a single sponsor.

c)    Radio commercials are tough to do, especially when it’s so easy to switch to another station.

d)    Despite his popular appeal, Allen was always clashing with his sponsors.

In this exercise, read the detail sentences in each question. Choose the topic sentence that those detail sentences most clearly support.

16. John Lennon and Paul McCartney provided the brilliant, endlessly eclectic songwriting. George Harrison contributed some songs of his own and added his quirky touches to Lennon’s and McCartney’s songs. Ringo Starr provided a driving backbeat that helped to define the band’s sound.

a)    Some members of the band were more important than others.

b)    That characteristic “Beatles” sound was the product of all four of the band’s members.

c)    Many musicians have written songs and then performed them with other musicians.

d)    The Beatles benefited from the help of a brilliant producer named George Martin.

17. He might have been more politically active as was his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois, but Chesnutt knew that mainstream success would mean more financial rewards. When his novels stopped selling, Chesnutt returned to his work as a lawyer, no longer able to justify writing books that had no audience. Critics have had a terrible time trying to decipher Chesnutt’s political message, but in fact, he may not have had one.

a)    Although he has been understood as a great social commentator, Charles Chesnutt was much more interested in making a living than in creating great art.

b)    Charles Chesnutt was one of the first African-American novelists to gain a white audience.

c)    Some of Charles Chesnutt’s earliest works were published in the widely read (and still existent) Atlantic Monthly.

d)    Like Albion Tourgée before him, Charles Chesnutt started as a lawyer but is best remembered today for his writing.

18. She laid out her nicest dress and ironed it carefully. She went back over the notes she had prepared and reread a few pages of the book. “I’m ready,” she said into the mirror, though she still didn’t feel completely confident.

a)    Sarah always had a strange habit of talking to herself.

b)    Sarah hadn’t done the reading for that day’s class.

c)    Sarah usually wore clothes that emphasized comfort over style.

d)    Sarah was nervous to teach her first literature class.

19. For too long, he argues, American economic theory has been relying on the “conventional wisdom” of outdated theories. The ideas of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer were formulated in earlier times when the general economic trends were toward poverty rather than affluence. Even Adam Smith, Galbraith says, can no longer be the guiding light that he inexplicably continues to be.

a)    In the long cycle of booms and busts, American economists have always been ahead of the economic trends they describe.

b)    American economics has a long and storied history, and many theorists from earlier eras continue to influence how we think today.

c)    Kenneth Galbraith suggests that the unprecedented prosperity in the United States requires new economic policies.

d)    Kenneth Galbraith is willing to admit that his own theories draw in large part on those of earlier economists.

20. It was the first of its kind in that it declared British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Balfour believed that such a homeland could be created in the British territories in Kenya. The creation of the nation of Israel, that hotly-contested space in the Middle East, is in many ways inconceivable without this document.

a)    Israel has a good deal of historical and spiritual significance for the Jewish religion.

b)    After World War II, many leaders in the free world finally took seriously the idea that the Jewish people should have an officially recognized homeland.

c)    The Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, was a revolutionary document, the influence of which is difficult to overstate.

d)    The Zionist idea of a Jewish homeland, at least as it is understood by historians, is thought to originate in an 1896 essay by Theodor Herzl.