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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Text cohesion

When we write, we want to link and sequence our ideas so that our text flows and easily makes sense to our reader.  We use several different language devices to help hold our text together and signpost to the reader how different parts relate to each other.  This is called cohesion.

Much of the thinking around cohesion comes from Halliday and Hasan (1976).  They proposed 5 types of cohesive ties: reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion.  Details about these different ties is substantial, but the summary below should more than cover what we, as primary teachers, need to know about text cohesion.

Within a text, ideas are expressed and elaborated upon.  Reference is the identification of a specific word or idea mentioned in the text, which provides continuity for the reader as they try to develop the meaning of what is written.  It signals that particular information is to be retrieved from the text.  Reference within a text can be anaphoric (referring back to something already mentioned) or cataphoric (referring forward to an idea not yet mentioned).  Let’s look at some examples.

Referring to something already mentioned (anaphoric reference)
Pronouns (personal and possessive)
  • My husband has retired.  He is enjoying himself.
  • I found a pencil case in the playground.  Sophie told me it was hers.
Pronouns (relative)
  • The red car, which was being driven by the robber, screamed up the road.
  • The politician, who was not very popular, left the venue through the back door.
Usually determiners are used at the beginning of a noun phrase, but they can be used as pronouns, replacing a noun.
  • King Henry had already married twice, but that didn’t stop him marrying again.
  • Would you like some cakes?  Yes, I’ll take these please.
  • I went into the shop to buy one book and came out with another.
  • I saw a red and a blue blouse, but I didn’t like either.
  • The protesters were asked to leave.  Some refused.
  • He says one thing and does another.
The following determiners can be used in this way
  • demonstratives: (this, that, these, those)
  • Universal determiners: each, every, all, both
  • Partitive determiners: some, someone, anyone, anybody, no-one, none, neither, either
  • Quantifiers: many, much, few, little, several, enough
  • Numerals – cardinal and ordinal, one, the first
Various nouns can refer to items already mentioned and often they indicate some feeling as well (often used in persuasive texts):
  • Children spell better if they learn 10 spellings a week.  This claim/assumption/lie/argument/promise/rumour/suggestion is open to debate.
  • During training, the footballer broke his leg.  This accident/disaster was a blow to the club.
Various words or phrases which have a comparative function, e.g. adjectives and adverbs
  • The door opened and a cat shot across the road.  Ten minutes later the same cat was seen in the car park.
  • Roses are very beautiful.  The same is true of orchids.
  • She wore a red dress, with a matching hat.
  • Sam believed Santa would arrive down the chimney at midnight.  Mum knew differently.
  • The 5th brigade surrounded the castle.  The Rifles were positioned similarly.
  • I thought life was wonderful.  I had no reason to think otherwise.

Referring forward to things that are about to be mentioned (cataphoric reference).
This type of reference is not used as frequently, but the following examples show how it can be created:
  • Well, you might not believe this, but I don’t like sweets much.
  • These were the facts.  On a cold winter’s day in December…
  • The following account is based on notes from that period.
  • Hercule Poirot drew the following conclusions: that the murder had been committed by the policeman.
  • In the next chapter, we will examine the theory in detail.
  • The details below will provide you with the truth.
  • There is only one actress who could have been chosen for this role: Dame Judi Dench.
The difference between substitution and referencing can seem a little confusing at first glance.  Whereas referencing relates to the meaning of the text and retrieval of a specific thing mentioned, substitution is the replacement of one item by another and it relates particularly to the replacement of the wording in the text.  The following examples highlight the difference between these.
  • My battery has run out.  I need to recharge it.  (This is reference, because the ‘it’ is referring to the ‘battery’ previously mentioned.)
  • My battery has run out.  I need to get another one.  (This is substitution, because ‘another one’ does not refer to the same battery previously mentioned.
Substitution can be nominal (replacing the noun or noun phrase), verbal (replacing the verb or verb phrase) or clausal (replacing the whole clause); the substitute item has to have the same structural function as the item it is replacing.  The most usual substitutes are:

Nominal substitution – one, ones, same.  The substitute often carries some information that distinguishes it from the original item, e.g. a different modifier. 
  • I love eating smarties, especially the orange ones.
  • The cheese sandwich was good, but the smoked salmon one was better!
  • My father is a doctor.  All being well, I will be the same.
Verbal substitution – do, (sometimes ‘do so’), which may substitute just the verb or the verb plus other elements.
  • Have you washed up?  I will do later.
  • Why don’t you complain to the council?  I have done.
  • Words do not come to mind as easily as they used to do.
Clausal substitution – so, not
  • Is there going to be a storm?  The weather forecaster says so/not.
  • Will that be enough?  If so, I will be relieved.  If not, I shall cry.
  • Are you all right?  I think so.
In English people often omit words rather than repeat them.  Different types of ellipsis are as follows.

Noun/pronoun ellipsis
In compound sentences, often the subject is omitted before the second verb, e.g. The dog barked and jumped.

The noun can also be omitted by using ‘have’ – She probably has a temperature – she certainly looks as if she has.

Verbal ellipsis (usually lexical verb although sometimes the auxiliaries can be ellipted
  • Have you been playing?  Yes I have.
  • What have you been doing? Swimming. 
If you have just described an action or a state and you want to introduce a new, contrasting subject, you can use ‘than’ + the auxiliary verb.
  • She can see better than he can.
  • He was earning more than I was.
To change the verb tense/form or modality:
  • Cook leeks exactly as you would onions.
  • They would stop if they could.
  • Very few of us want to go, although we know we must.
  • The poster should have created more interest than it has.
Often used in passive:
  • I’m sure it was repeated on the news.  It must have been.
‘Do’ is often used.  (also with negative)
  • Do the children want to come?  I think they do.
  • Does the parrot talk? Yes he does.  No he doesn’t.
  • Did John Lennon write that song?  I’m sure he did/didn’t.
Adjective ellipsiswhen using the verb ‘be’
  • I think you are right.  I’m sure I am.
  • She was great!  I thought she might be.
Clausal ellipsis
  • With infinitive verb.
    • He advised her to visit a doctor, but she couldn’t afford to.
    • Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.
    • At last he agreed to do what I asked him to
  • Do you think parents know how long planning takes?  No, I don’t think they do.
  • Has she got any idea about how he feels?  She should (have).
  • Will she be happy there?  She’d better (be).
  • Who was going to switch on the Christmas lights?  The mayor was.
This term in cohesion relates to connections made internally within sentences (conjunctions), and connections made externally between sentences and paragraphs (connecting adverbs, sometimes referred to as conjuncts or transition words).  For more information, click here.

Connecting adverbs (conjuncts) create cohesive links throughout a text, linking sentences and paragraphs to help the reader maintain meaning.  For instance, in story language, using time conjuncts will help the reader with the sequencing of the information: that afternoon, the next day, later that evening.  Whereas, in a persuasive text, you can assist your reader through the text by signalling the points you are adding: moreover, in addition, furthermore.

Considering which connecting adverbs are appropriate to which text type is important for cohesion.  We would not necessarily use the same conjuncts for a story as we would an explanation or a non-chronological report.

Lexical cohesion
Lexical cohesion relies on vocabulary choice.  Halliday and Hasan provide two different types:
  • reiteration, which includes repetition, synonyms, close synonyms and superordinates (words which include the meaning of another word, e.g. animal is a superordinate word for cat).
  • collocation, which includes words which are associated or belong together.
‘What is it, you daft animal?’ murmured Jed, as his pony flinched at the sudden noise.  Soothed by his master’s voice, the young horse shook his mane and settled.  Jed wondered once again if the money was well spent on this colt, when he could have picked a more experienced horse for the job.

In the above paragraph, we have repetition of horse, synonyms of pony and colt, animal as a superordinate and we also have the word mane, which is closely associated with horses.

Verb tense and form
Cohesion in text is also created by maintenance of the same tense/form and by correct selection of tense, for example when expanding verb phrases.  Experienced writers are able to use movement between tenses and forms in a sophisticated manner for effect, but children often find maintaining consistency more problematic.  They may start a recount in the past tense and move into the present tense later in the text, or slip into the past tense in a set of instructions, when they started in the imperative. 

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.