“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?’ ”
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 are useful cohesive devices because they make it unnecessary to repeat words too often. Consider the following:
When Gillette first invented disposable razor blades, he found it very hard to sell the disposable razor blades. He found it very hard to sell the disposable razor blades because nobody had marketed a throw-away product before.
When Gillette first invented disposable razor blades, he found it very hard to sell them. This 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.
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.
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 (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.
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
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).
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 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?
Using transitions/logical organisers
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. Repetition of key noun
2. Repetition of key noun
3. Pronoun + Repetition
4. Repetition with synonym
9. Repetition of key noun
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.
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.
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.
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.
Parallel: The elderly residents enjoy many recreational activities: swimming, reading, 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:
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.
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.
Putting sentences in order