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Achieving coherence

“A piece of writing is coherent when it elicits the response: ‘I follow you. I see what you mean.’ It is incoherent when it elicits the response: ‘I see what you're saying here, but what has it got to do with the topic at hand or with what you just told me above?’ ”

- Johns, A.M



What is coherence?

Coherence in a piece of writing means that the reader can easily understand it. Coherence is about making everything flow smoothly. The reader can see that everything is logically arranged and connected, and relevance to the central focus of the essay is maintained throughout.

 

 

 Two key aspects of coherence

  • Cohesion: This relates to the linking of ideas within a sentence, the linking of sentences (the ties between sentences) within a paragraph and the linking between paragraphs. 
  • Unity: This relates to the question of relevance and maintaining the central focus of a single paragraph and throughout the essay. A paragraph has unity when the support sentences contribute to a greater understanding of the point made at the beginning of the paragraph.

 

How can you achieve coherence in your writing?

Even if English is not your first language, you can achieve coherence in your writing by using some cohesive devices.  Cohesive devices are the “glue” that holds a piece of writing together. They carry meaning within a sentence and from a previous sentence into the next. They allow the reader to follow from one part of the text to another, and to understand the logical relationships between sentences and paragraphs.

We will examine four cohesive devices: (Note: the symbols in brackets will be used in examples and practice activities.)

  • Pronouns (P)
  • Repetition (with exact word or parallel term/synonym) (R)
  • Transitions (T)
  • Parallelism (PllM): the use of similar grammatical forms and sentence structures

Four cohesive devices

This diagram shows how the four cohesive devices - pronouns, repetition, transitions and parallelism -  are used to create a coherent text.

Pronouns

Pronouns are useful cohesive devices because they make it unnecessary to repeat words too often. Consider the following:

Repetitious referencing: 

When Gillette first invented disposable razor blades, he found it very hard to sell the disposable razor bladesHe found it very hard to sell the disposable razor blades because nobody had marketed a throw-away product before.

Better:

When Gillette first invented disposable razor blades, he found it very hard to sell themThis was because nobody had marketed a throw-away product before.

 

Pronouns as cohesive devices 

This following presentation shows how pronouns can be used effectively to achieve coherence within a text and some common problems of use.  

Pronouns as cohesive devices

Repetition

Repetition in a piece of writing does not always demonstrate cohesion.  Study these sentences:

Unnecessary repetition or limited vocabulary range:

The purpose of the simulation exercise is to simulate the racing performance of a racing car as it will perform in an actual race.

Improved sentence:

The purpose of the simulation exercise is to recreate the performance of a car in an actual race. 

So, how does repetition as a cohesive device work?

When a pronoun is used, sometimes what the pronoun refers to (ie, the referent) is not always clear. Clarity is achieved by repeating a key noun or synonym. Repetition is a cohesive device used deliberately to improve coherence in a text.

In the following text, decide ifthe referent for the pronoun it is clear. Otherwise, replace it with the key noun English where clarity is needed.

English has almost become an international language. Except for Chinese, more people speak it  than any other language. Spanish is the official language of more countries in the world, but more countries have English  as their official or unofficial second language. More than 70% of the world's mail is written in English . It  is the primary language on the Internet. (p.23).

Text source: Oshima, A. and Hogue. A. (2006). Writing academic English (4th ed.). NY: Pearson Education

Click here to view the revised text.

Suggested improvement

English has almost become an international language. Except for Chinese, more people speak it (clear reference; retain)  than any other language. Spanish is the official language of more countries in the world, but more countries have English (it is replaced with a key noun) as their official or unofficial second language. More than 70% of the world's mail is written in English (it is replaced with a key noun). It (clear reference; retain) is the primary language on the Internet.


Sometimes, repetition of a key noun is preferred even when the reference is clear. In the following text, it is clear that it refers to the key noun gold, but when used throughout the text, the style becomes monotonous.

Example:

Gold, a precious metal, is prized for two important characteristics. First of all, it has a lustrous beauty that is resistant to corrosion. Therefore, it is suitable for jewellery, coins and ornamental purposes. It never needs to be polished and will remain beautiful forever. For example, a Macedonian coin remains as untarnished today as the day it was minted 23 centuries ago. Another characteristic of it is its usefulness to industry and science. For many years, it has been used in hundreds of industrial applications, such as photography and dentistry. Its most recent use is in astronauts’ suits. Astronauts wear heat shields made from it for protection when they go outside spaceships in space. In conclusion, it is treasured not only for its beauty but also its utility. (p.22).

Text source: Oshima, A. and Hogue, A. (2006). Writing academic English (4th ed.). NY: Pearson Education

Click here to view the revised text.

Improved text: Note where the key noun gold is repeated. The deliberate repetition creates interest and adds maturity to the writing style.

Gold, a precious metal, is prized for two important characteristics. First of all, gold has a lustrous beauty that is resistant to corrosion. Therefore, it is suitable for jewellery, coins and ornamental purposes. Gold never needs to be polished and will remain beautiful forever. For example, a Macedonian coin remains as untarnished today as the day it was made 23 centuries ago. Another important characteristic of gold is its usefulness to industry and science. For many years, it has been used in hundreds of industrial applications. The most recent use of gold is in astronauts’ suits. Astronauts wear gold-plated shields when they go outside spaceships in space. In conclusion, gold is treasured not only for its beauty but also its utility.


Pronoun + Repetition of key noun

Sometimes, greater cohesion can be achieved by using a pronoun followed by an appropriate key noun or synonym (a word with a similar meaning).

Examples:

In the two main studies, no dramatic change was found in the rate of corrosion. This finding could be due to several reasons.  

Generally speaking, crime rates in Europe have fallen over the past two years. This drop/This declining trend has been the result of new approaches to punishment.

When a group of school children was interviewed, the majority said they preferred their teachers to be humorous yet kind. However, such qualities were not as highly rated by teachers.

Transitions

Transitions are like traffic signals. They guide the reader from one idea to the next. They signal a range of relationships between sentences, such as comparison, contrast, example and result. Click here for a more comprehensive list of Transitions (Logical Organisers).

Test yourself: How well do you understand transitions?

Which of the three alternatives should follow the transition or logical organiser in capital letters to complete the second sentence?

1. In 2006, there was a proposal to build a stadium near the Auckland waterfront. IN FACT,...

2. The plans were submitted to the Auckland City Council for consideration in February 2006. HOWEVER,...

3. The main objection to the stadium proposal was the destruction of the waterfront views. IN ADDITION,...

4. The recreational needs of the waterfront residents were not ignored. ON THE CONTRARY,...

5. In the end, the final total costs were too high. CONSEQUENTLY...


Using transitions/logical organisers

Improve the coherence of the following paragraph by adding transitions in the blank spaces. Use the italicised hint in brackets to help you choose an apporpriate transition for each blank. If you need to, review the list of Transitions (Logical Organisers) before you start.

Move Over DVD. Here Comes BD!

First, CDs brought digital sound into people's homes. Then DVD technology brought digital sound and video and completely revolutionised the movie industry. Soon there will be 1. another (addition) revolution: Blu-ray *BDs. A Blu-ray disc will have several advantages. 2. First (sequence), it has an enormous data storage capacity. A single-sided DVD can hold 4.7 gigabytes of information, about the size of an average 2-hour movie. A single-sided BD, 3. however (contrast) can hold up to 27 gigabytes, enough for 13 hours of standard video. A 4. second (sequence) advantage is that a BD can record, store, and play back high-definition video because of its larger capacity. A double-layer BD can store about 50 gigabytes, enough for 4.5 hours of high-definition video. The cost will be the same. 5. In addition (addition), a BD has a higher data transfer rate - 36 megabits per second - than today's DVDs, which transfer at 10 megabits per second. 6. Consequently (result), a BD can record 25 gigabytes of data in just over an hour and a half. 7. Therefore (conclusion, result), because of their storage capacity and comparable cost, BDs will probably take over the market when they become widely available. (p.31).

Text source: Oshima, A. and Hogue, A. (2008). Writing academic English (4th ed.). NY: Pearson Longman Ltd.

Using transitions

Choose the most appropriate transition from the options given to complete the article:

Nuclear Hazards

There are three separate sources of hazards related to the use of nuclear reactions to supply us with energy. Firstly , the radioactive material must travel from its place of manufacture to the power station. Although the power stations themselves are solidly built, the containers used for the transport of the material are not. Unfortunately, there are normally only two methods of transport available, namely road or rail, and both of these involve close contact with the general public, since the routes are bound to pass near or through heavily-populated areas. 

Secondly , there is the problem of waste. All nuclear power stations produce wastes which in most cases will remain radioactive for thousands of years. It is impossible to de-activiate these wastes; consequently , they must be disposed of carefully. For example , they may be buried under the ground, dropped into disused mineshafts, or sunk in the sea. However , these methods do not solve the problem; they merely store it, since an earthquake could crack open the containers.

Thirdly , there is the problem of accidental exposure due to a leak or an explosion at the power station. As with the other two hazards, this is extremely unlikely. Nevertheless it can happen. Separately, and during short periods, these three types of risk are no great cause for concern. Taken together, though , and especially over much longer periods, the probability of a disaster is extremely high. (p. 62).

Text source: Coe, N., Rycroft, R., & Ernest, P. (1983). Writing skills: A problem-solving approach for upper-intermediate and more advacned students. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Overusing transitions

While the use of appropriate transitions can improve coherence (as the previous practice activity shows), it can also be counterproductive if transitions are overused. Use transitions carefully to enhance and clarify the logical connection between ideas in extended texts. Write a range of sentences and vary sentence openings. 

Study the following examples:

Overuse:

If people stopped drinking, they might be able to prevent the onset of liver disease. However, governments permit the production and sale of alcohol. So, they should help in preventing this disease. Nevertheless, government resources are limited. 

Insufficient use:

If people stopped drinking, they might be able to prevent the onset of liver disease. Governments permit the production and sale of alcohol.  They should help in preventing this disease. Government resources are limited. 

Adequate use:

If people stopped drinking, they might be able to prevent the onset of liver disease. The government should help in preventing this disease because they permit the production and sale of alcohol. Government resources, however, are limited.

Practice

Identifying cohesive devices

Identify the type of cohesive device indicated by the numbered references 1-11. Write the number followed by the name of the correct cohesive device (Pronoun, Repetition, Pronoun+Repetition or Transition) in the submission box.

Click here to view the answer to the activity above.

Answer key

1.  Repetition of key noun                   

2.  Repetition of key noun                    

3.  Pronoun + Repetition                      

4.  Repetition with synonym                 

5.  Pronoun                                       

6.  Pronoun

7.    Transition

8.    Transition

9.    Repetition of key noun  

10.   Pronoun

11.   Pronoun + Repetition

 


Identifying cohesive devices

Write the name of the cohesive device - pronoun, repetition or transition - in the space after each underlined word or phrase before the blank.

The Sinking of the Titanic

In 1912, the Titanic, the largest and best equipped transatlantic liner of its pronoun time, hit an iceberg on its pronoun first crossing from England to America and sank. Of the 2,235 parrengers and crew, only 718 survivived.

Research has shown that a number of factors played an important part in the disaster repetition . First transition , the Titanic repetition carried only sixteen lifeboats, with room for about 1,100 people. This pronoun was clearly not enough for a ship of the Titanic's repetition size. In fact transition , the designer of the Titanic repetition originally planned to equip the ship repetition with forty-eight lifeboats repetition ; however transition , in order to reduce their pronoun costs for building the ship repetition , the owners of the Titanic repetition decided to give it pronoun only sixteen lifeboats repetition .

A second transition  factor repetition was that the Titanic repetition crew were not given enough time to become familiar with the ship repetition , especially with its pronoun emergency equipment. As a result transition , many lifeboats repetition left the ship repetition only half-full and many more people died than needed to. The third transition  factor repetition in the disaster repetition was the behaviour of the Titanic's repetition officers on the night of the disaster repetition . In the twenty-four hours before the disaster repetition , they pronoun received a number of warnings about icebergs repetition in the area, but they pronoun took no precautions. They pronoun did not change direction or even reduce speed. (p. 22).

Source: Pakenham, K.J. (1998). Making connections: An interactive approach to academic reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 


Using cohesive devices - pronouns and repetition

Read through the text below and consider how you might use pronouns and repetition (either with a key noun or synonym) to replace the bolded expressions. Write your revised text in the submission box. 

The Aha! Moment

Facebook did not invent social networking, but the company has fine-tuned Facebook into a science. When a newcomer logs in, the experience is designed to generate something Facebook calls the aha! moment. The generation of the aha! moment at log in is an observable emotional connection, gleaned by videotaping the expressions of test users navigating Facebook for the first time. Facebook has developed a formula for the precise number of aha! moments users must have before users are hooked. Company officials will not say exactly what that magic number is, but everything about Facebook is geared to reach that magic number as quickly as possible.

So far, at least, Facebook has avoided the digital exoduses that beset Facebook's predecessors, MySpace and Friendster. The avoidance of digital exoduses that Facebook's predecessors is partly because Facebook is so good at making Facebook indispensable. Losing Facebook hurts.

Source: Fletcher, D. (2010, May 31). Friends without borders. Time, 175, 21, 16-22.

 

Click here to view a suggested answer.

Suggested answer:

The Aha! Moment

Facebook did not invent social networking, but the company has fine-tuned it (pronoun-first person) into a science. When a newcomer logs in, the experience is designed to generate something Facebook calls the aha! moment. This (pronoun-determiner) is an observable emotional connection, gleaned by videotaping the expressions of test users navigating the site (repetition with synonym) for the first time. Facebook has developed a formula for the precise number of aha! moments users must have before they (pronoun-third person)  are hooked. Company officials will not say exactly what that magic number is, but everything about the site (repetition with synonym) is geared to reach it as quickly as possible.

So far, at least, Facebook has avoided the digital exoduses that beset its (pronoun-possessive)  predecessors, MySpace and Friendster. This is partly because Facebook is so good at making itself (pronoun-reflexive) indispensable. Losing Facebook hurts.


Cohesion between paragraphs

So far, we have looked at cohesion within paragraphs. In longer texts of several paragraphs, a combination of pronouns, transition and reptition can be used to maintain logical flow and connection between paragraphs.

The extract presented here consists of four paragraphs of an expository essay entitled Sustainable Development from a Historical Perspective: The Mayan Civilisation. Note how the bolded expressions at the start of the second, third and fourth paragraphs provide cohesive links to the paragraph preceding them.

Click to view Cohesion between paragraphs.

 

Parallelism

Sometimes known as parallel structures or balanced constructions, parallelism is the use of similar grammatical forms or sentence structures when listing or when comparing two or more items.

When used correctly, parallelism can improve the clarity of your writing.

Study these examples of faulty parallelism (marked with an asterisk *) and their corrections(in bold):

Faulty:  The elderly residents enjoy many recreational activities: swimming, *read and *to garden.

ParallelThe elderly residents enjoy many recreational activities: swimmingreading, and gardening.

 

Faulty:    The academic conversation group consists of students from China, Japan, Korea and *some Germans.

Parallel:  The academic conversation group consists of students from China, Japan, Korea, and Germany.

 

Faulty:    This paper discusses the main features of the AST system, the functionalities, and *the system also has a number of limitations.

Parallel:  This paper discusses the main features of the AST system, the functionalities, and limitations. 

 

Parallelism in extended texts

The following excerpt from Bertrand Russell's famous prologue to his autobiography has some classic examples of parallelism:

 

 

Problem areas

The main problem is the use of parallel structures with paired conjunctions, e.g. both ... and, neither ... nor, either ... or, not only ... but also.

Consider the following examples:

Faulty:   The computer is both fast and *it has reliability

Parallel: The computer is both fast and reliable.

Faulty:   The problem with electronic banking is neither the lack of security nor *the fact that you pay high interest rates.

Parallel: The problem with electronic banking is neither the lack of security nor the high interest fees.

Faulty:   The aim of the new law is not only to reduce the incidence of boy racing but also *setting up new standards for noise tolerance in the whole neighbourhood.

Parallel: The aim of the new law is not only to reduce ... but also to set up new standards for noise tolerance in the whole neighbourhood.

Correcting faulty parallel constructions

Correct the faulty parallel constructions (bold) in the following sentences. 

 

1.   The researcher wanted to find out where the new immigrants came from and to talk about their future plans.

2.  The earthquake victims were both concerned about water contamination and the slow response from the government also made them angry.

3.  An ideal environment for studying includes good lighting, a spacious room, and the furniture must be comfortable.

4.  Computers have changed the way people live, for their work, and how they use their leisure time.

5. Houses play an important role not only to provide a place to live, but also for giving a sense of security.

Click here to view the suggested answers.

Suggested answers:

1   The researcher wanted to find out where the new immigrants came from and what their future plans were.

2.  The earthquake victims were both concerned about water contamination and angry at the the slow response from the government.

3.  An ideal environment for studying includes good lighting, a spacious room, and comfortable furniture.

4.  Computers have changed the way people live, work, and use their leisure time.

5. Houses play an important role not only to provide a place to live, but also to give a sense of security.


Recognising parallel structures

Read through the text and underline the examples of parallel structures (there are five of them). If you can, write the type of grammatical form used in each case. The first one has been done for you as an example.

Write out the entire paragraph in the submission box if it is easier.

Now you try:

Not only have geneticists found beneficial uses of genetically engineered organisms in agriculture, but they have also found (1. paired conjunctions) useful ways to use these organisms advantageously in the larger environment. According to the Monsanto company, a leader in genetic engineering research, recombinant DNA techniques may provide scientists with new ways to clean up the environment and with more efficient methods of producing chemicals. By using genetically engineered organisms, scientists have been able to produce natural gas. This process will decrease society's dependence on the environment and will reduce the rate at which natural resources are depleted. In other processes, genetically engineered bacteria are being used both to extract metals from their geological setting and to speed the breakup of complex petroleum mixtures which will help to clean up oil spills. (p. 523).

Source: Rosen, L.J. (1995). Discovery and commitment: A guide for college writers. Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Click here to view the answer to the question above


Challenge task

Putting sentences in order

The following sentences go together to form a newspaper report, but they are in the wrong order. Using the words and phrases in bold type (pronouns, transitions, repetition) to help you make the links, put the sentences in the right order. Write in the submission box. If you write out the whole text - and not just the sentence numbers - you will be able to see the cohesion in use more clearly.

Ship accident in Channel


  • The official added that British experts would be invited to join the committee.
  • In spite of this damage the two ships managed to reach the nearby port of Dunkirk under their own steam.
  • Yesterday evening two ships collided in thick fog in the English Channel.
  • According to eye-witnesses, neither of the vessels was going very fast at the time of the accident.
  • Consequently, there was insufficient time for them to take avoiding action.
  • Fortunately, there were no casualties among the crews or the passengers, but both ships were holed close to the water-line.
  • A spokesman for the port authorities said that a committee of enquiry would be set up to ascertain the cause of the accident.
  • One was a cargo boat carrying fruit, and apparently bound for London.
  • The other was a British Rail cross-channel ferry on its regular run from Dover to Dunkirk.
  • However, because of the weather conditions, the captains did not realise the danger until only seconds before the collision took place.

Click here to view the answer to the question above


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