Six Tools to Create Cohesion & Coherence
Reference, substitution, cohesive nouns, ellipsis, lexical chains, conjunction . . .
Obscure names for processes common in everyday speech and indispensable for good writing.
Simply explained, with examples.
When we write an essay, there are several points we want to make and an overall idea we hope to get across to the reader. We use grammatical and lexical tools to make all the points come together and form one understandable whole. We want the whole to fit logically together to make our point.
If we succeed and the reader understands our meaning because what we wrote sticks together well, our essay has coherence.
The parts of a text don’t go in just any order; there are certain ways sentences and paragraphs connect with each other to fit properly. The tools, or devices, we use to link all these parts into a meaningful whole create cohesion – they work like glue sticking together pieces of a picture. There are six main types of cohesive devices.
Despite obscure names like anaphor and cataphor, reference means just what it sounds like, referring to something mentioned elsewhere in a text. We do this all the time when we speak. “The dentist has an opening tomorrow at 2:00. He will see you then.” Who is “he”? What is “then”? If someone told you only the second sentence, it wouldn’t make much sense (and, if your tooth hurt a lot, you might get a bit angry), but together with the first sentence, the meaning of the second is quite clear. Just like your mother is clear when she says, “The wastebasket is full. Please empty it.” If you ask her, “Wait, what do you mean, ‘it’?” she won’t think you are being funny, and she won’t believe that you don’t understand. We use pronouns and other special words to refer back to things – people, places, times, etc. – with such frequency that these patterns are quite familiar, even unnoticed. Look for this linkage of words to earlier mentions of things when you read, and you will start to understand how cohesion works.
Reference is used to create cohesion in several different ways. If your father walks out and sees you standing by the car, which is wrecked, and says “Did you do that?” he’s making a reference to something outside the text (here, a situation) that is obvious to both of you, the speakers.1 He didn’t have to say first, “Oh, look, the car’s been wrecked.” You probably won’t want to tell him so, but he’s just provided an example of exophora. On the other hand, if you make a statement to the police about the wrecked car, and you say that you came downstairs in the morning, saw that the car was wrecked, but didn’t see anyone around, and the policeman asks, “So, what time did you come down and notice this?” he’s using endophora, because “this” refers to the fact that the car has been wrecked, something you explicitly said, and it’s an anaphoric, because the reference is to something earlier, although, again, you probably won’t want to point out these interesting grammatical facts to the policeman just then. The diagram that follows shows how these ideas fit together.
Definite pronouns and determiners are usually what we use to refer back to people, objects, and situations that we’ve mentioned earlier in a text, e.g., she, they, it, those, that.
No one seemed to want the last piece of cake. It sat on the plate for days getting stale. Finally, late last night, when John came home tired and hungry, he ate it, only to have Susan scream at him this morning for having finished it.
Anaphoric reference is really a form of substitution, replacing one word or phrase with another, usually shorter, way of saying the same thing. To find these anaphoric references in a text, look especially for pronouns, demonstratives, and adverbials like the following:1
personal pronouns (subjective or objective forms): I, you, we, he, she, it, they, one, him, her
possessive personal pronouns: mine, yours, ours, hers, its, theirs (or their determinative forms: my, your, our, her, its, their, one’s, often paired with a noun that refers back to something mentioned previously)
demonstratives & other determiners: this, these, that, those, some, any, both, enough, neither, none, half, etc. (often functioning as pronouns in anaphoric constructions)
place and time adverbials: here, there, then
comparatives: another, more, fewer, same, different. equally, likewise, similarly
Whereas reference is often described as a link of meaning between words (because we understand the reference only in relation to its antecedent), substitution is described as a grammatical link that allows us to replace a noun or noun phrase, a verb or verb phrase, or an entire clause, when we say something about the same item or topic elsewhere in the text.2 Why substitute one phrase for another? This may be for reasons of style, for instance, to avoid repetition, or we may want to clarify or define our meaning more precisely. Substitutes are often a more general word in the former case, and a more specific, or technical, phrase in the latter. Almost any word or phrase might function as a substitute, but there are some common patterns that can help us find substitutions. Words like one, some, or any often work as more general substitutes, while technical terms may fit in to replace a description of what they mean:
I don’t have change for the meter. Do you have any? (more general)
Clarence arrived just as I was making coffee, so I asked him if he‘d like some. (more general)
After the initial votes for student council have been counted, the three students with the most votes make speeches. Each candidate speaks for ten minutes, then the final votes are cast. (more specific/technical)
Other patterns include using adverbials like so and thus to replace larger units – objects, complements, or whole clauses – and using a form of the verb “to do” to replace a longer verbal phrase or clause.
It was terribly cold outside, so the others went inside. Eventually, I did too.
3. Cohesive Nouns
Cohesive nouns are nouns that summarize what came before or what is to follow. For example, if I come home and find water all over the floor, a steady flow coming out from under the sink, and it takes me hour to find a night plumber who will come, plus a few more hours to have the pipe fixed and clean up the mess so I only get to sleep at 3:00 a.m., and, not surprisingly, I oversleep and arrive late to class the next morning, I might apologize by explaining what happened in a much shorter way. I might just say that I had a “problem” which made me late. “Problem” in this case refers back to the whole long, unhappy story described above. Often, the very use of such a word characterizes what will follow, making it easier for a reader or listener to predict what’s next. So, if you come into class a few minutes late and say, “So, there was a problem. . . .,” I already know that what follows will probably be a sad story about unfortunate circumstances which made it impossible for you to do your homework or arrive on time.
So, if “problem” is a short way to talk about the whole situation, ellipsis is even shorter. Ellipsis is when you leave out words that are understood. Wait, you may say, how can leaving words out make things more clear? But we do this all the time. “He can’t swim but I can.” What can I do? I can swim – that is quite clear and, in fact, it would sound rather awkward to say “He can’t swim but I can swim.” This sounds like a child’s speech – children only learn ellipsis as they become more linguistically mature. The omission can cover a great deal more just a word or phrase; whole sections of sentences, often the predicates or verbal parts, may be left out because they are clear between speakers or writer and reader. Sometimes this absence is even a form of emphasis. Look for this when you read, and you will understand more of the writer’s meaning and tone.
5. Lexis (Lexical Chains)
Sometimes words come bound up like a pile of presents one atop the other; once we open one, we have a very good idea what the others will be. For example, if, at your wedding, you receive twenty matching boxes of various sizes and the first one is a plate, you can guess the others are likely to be matching bowls, saucers, and perhaps a serving platter or two. In the same way, once I say “wedding” you know from experience that certain other words are likely to follow, like “bride”, “groom”, “reception”, “flowers”, “dress”, “honeymoon”, “cake”, etc. These words are linked into a chain of meaning so that one helps you understand the others; they are a lexical set.
Pairs or groups of words have a more specific linkage of meaning, such as a part-to-whole relationship, called meronymy, (e.g., branch, leaf, and bark are all parts of a tree), or a category/subcategory relationship, where the category is called the superordinate and the subtype a hyponym, (e.g., the general word tree covers many specific types like pine, oak, and birch). You likely know some other examples, such as words that mean the same thing being called synonyms, (e.g., health/wellness), and those that mean the opposite, antonyms, (health/sickness). We use these lexical relationships in speech because they make what we say much easier for others to understand. In writing, words like these tell us how parts of a text are linked.
Lexical linkages are often essential to an essay’s structure. For example, if an author talks about “costs”, we expect negatives to follow in the text. If the author then talks about “benefits” we’ll expect positives to come next. Our expectations shape our perceptions different ways: they make the whole text easier to understand and they also subtly influence our evaluations. For example, a ‘cost/benefit’ contrast can make items seem to fit into one box or the other, and we may adopt the author’s categorizations. Lexical relationships can be powerful tools when wielded by a skilled writer. Not only can an author use lexical connections to shape our judgments, she can guide the way we reason. A structure like the ‘cost/benefit’ contrast described above encourages us to quantify and add up items on one side as against the other.
As a writer, using lexical relationships to link sentences, paragraphs, and the whole text together will help you make your points clear and your arguments persuasive. As a reader, spotting these lexical connections will reveal methods of persuasion and authorial biases.
This is what links those positives and negatives described above into a contrasting relationship. Let’s say I list several items as “costs“, but then start my next sentence with “however“; you already know that I am going to change direction and tell you why all those costs don’t add up to a total negative. This is one of the first methods of cohesion we’re taught explicitly when we learn to write. We’re told to use phrases like “because”, “moreover”, “firstly”, “secondly”, “therefore”, “in addition”, and similar expressions to link our clauses, sentences, or paragraphs together in an organized way that makes their relationship to each other clear to our readers. This is sometimes referred to as signposting because these linkages show where the text is going. Used in this sense, “conjunction” refers generally to the structural relationships among parts of the text rather than specifically to the words called “conjunctions” in a grammar book (i.e., and, but, or, etc.).
When we talk about conjunction as a cohesive device, we mean ways to relate two clauses, sentences, or paragraphs together into a functional relationship. The relationship can be additive, adversative, causal, or temporal. For example, one clause may be the reason for the other:
He finished the pizza because he was hungry.
This could have been two separate sentences, but since they have a cause-effect relationship, we can link them together with “because” (an actual conjunction) to make this relationship more clear. Likewise, if an author gives several reasons why watching TV can be bad, and organizes them into a kind of list by starting paragraphs with “First of all” then “Secondly” (adverbs), then “The third negative feature” (a noun phrase), all three of these paragraph starters are examples of conjunction as a cohesive device. They work by linking pieces of text together so that while you are reading, you can follow along and see the relationship of one part to the next. In this example, the paragraph starters show us that the facts within each paragraph are to be added to a list supporting one main point, as the author builds a case against TV watching by adding up all the bad things it can do.
In a well organized essay, the author usually tells us about the list (or other structure) at the outset. For example, these paragraph starters might refer back to the phrase “several serious drawbacks” in the first paragraph, where the author promised to describe the pros and cons of TV watching. Whether we are persuaded often depends upon the extent to which the author kept these initial promises by the end of the essay.
1For the moment, we will leave aside the concept of deixis, or references to the speaker’s personal, situational, or temporal locus, to which parts of discourse may refer. Deixis and anaphora sometimes overlap, but for purposes of understanding cohesive devices, at the moment we can simplify matters by focusing only on the latter. See note 2 for more on this.
2 Halliday and Hasan (1976) described the contrast between reference and substitution as semantic versus grammatical relations between the linked sections of text, and Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) offer the idea of a semantic versus a “lexicogrammatical” relation, (635). Importantly, however, Halliday and Hasan noted the overlap of these categories:
The classification of cohesive relations into different types should not be seen as implying a rigid division into watertight compartments. There are many instances of cohesive forms that lie on the borderline between two types and could be interpreted as one or the other. (Halliday and Hasan, 1976, 88)
For our purposes, the six categories above are a good starting point to understand cohesion in texts, but many important overlaps and subtleties are not covered in this short guide, and entire discussions are omitted, for example, the relationship of deixis to anaphora as mentioned in note 1, above. For more on this latter topic, see Stirling and Huddleston’s (2016) extensive treatment of the subject.
Halliday, M.A.K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English (R. Quirk, Ed.). Longman Group Limited.
Halliday, M.A.K., & Matthieson, M.I.M. (2014). Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar (4th ed.). Routledge.
Schmolz, H. (2015). Anaphora Resolution and Text Retrieval: A Linguistic Analysis of Hypertexts. Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
Stirling, L. & Huddleston, R. (2016). Deixis and Anaphora. In R. Huddleston and G. Pullum (Eds.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1449-1564). Cambridge University Press.
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