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I find that my students are using a lot of these phrases at the beginning of their sentences:

  • First...
  • First of all...
  • To begin with...
  • All in all...
  • The other reason is that...
  • Above all...
  • At last but not least...
  • Taking all the reasons and examples into consideration...
  • In a word...

Do these phrases have a common name?

Is there a special term for such phrases when they do not add any meaning to the sentence they are added to?

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"At last but not least" seems to be conflating two phrases, the one being "At last," the other being "Last (or And last) but not least." –  John M. Landsberg Sep 25 '13 at 2:16
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4 Answers

The term is metadiscourse, or communication about the communication. Sometimes they help guide the reader through a complex line of reasoning. Sometimes they add emphasis or rhythm. Sometimes they're just noise.

"Use them liberally" (from your other post) seems like coarse advice, perhaps useful until students can distinguish for themselves whether the text requires such orientation, or until they can write the text so that less orientation is necessary.

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When people are talking, they often say something to get the other person's attention, to gain momentum, or to organize their thoughts before jumping in to the main statement. Generally, you might find it useful to have some of these in a draft - just to let the thoughts get onto "paper", but most should be edited out of written material because they don't add anything. They're just a header. In less formal writing, they can be used to convey personality, mood, or style, so they're not all bad. –  Joe Sep 25 '13 at 1:22
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I would see these as transitions, bits which help move the reader smoothly from one thought (spread over one or several paragraphs) to the next.

I think presenting it that way will give your students a clear reason whether to use this literary tool:

  • Am I introducing a new thought?
  • Am I wrapping up the previous thought?

If not, then remove the phrase.

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I'm not sure they really have an established, generally accepted name, but I would suggest it would be simplest to call them introductory phrases.

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Although I like @Dale Emery's "metadiscourse". See

http://learningnerd.wordpress.com/2006/09/06/english-grammar-types-of-phrases/

for the names of common type of phrases.

If you spend a lot of time talking about what you're talking about or introducing and qualifying statements instead of just saying them, it makes them more complex and tends to be distracting or annoying if it doesn't actively contribute to understanding the rest of the sentence.

Phrases like this can be beneficial if you need to frame a concept in a particular context before stating it - instead of putting the context at the end of the sentence.

In fiction writing, prepositional phrases can be used to set the tone.

Prepositional phrases can be used to set tone in fiction writing.

The first way just sounds better to me.

The problem is that additional phrases like these make the reader save up their contents and then apply them to the rest of the sentence. It makes them think more. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

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I really can't see how these are prepositional. "Above all" might qualify, but even that is conceptual, not physical. –  John M. Landsberg Sep 25 '13 at 2:20
    
@JohnM.Landsberg OK. I overstepped, but the link for types of phrases is still useful. –  Joe Sep 26 '13 at 9:02
    
If I had never overstepped in my life, I would be a much happier man. ;) Thanks for the good link. –  John M. Landsberg Sep 26 '13 at 14:55
    
@JohnM.Landsberg Not likely. If you don't make mistakes, then you aren't risking enough. Although this one was just not thinking enough about it first. –  Joe Sep 27 '13 at 20:20
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