What Is Cohesion in Composition?

Making Sense on the Sentence Level

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In writing, cohesion is the use of repetitionpronouns, transitional expressions, and other devices called cohesive clues to guide readers and show how the parts of a composition relate to one other. Writer and editor Roy Peter Clark makes a distinction between coherence and cohesion in "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer" as being between the sentence and text level by saying that "when the big parts fit, we call that good feeling coherence; when sentences connect we call it cohesion."

In other words, cohesion involves the way ideas and relationships are communicated to readers, notes the Writing Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.​

Sticking Text Together

In the simplest terms, cohesion is the process of linking and connecting sentences together through a variety of linguistic and semantic ties, which can be broken into three types of semantic relationships: immediate, mediated, and remote ties. In each case, cohesion is the relationship between two elements in written or oral text where the two elements may be clauses, words, or phrases.

In immediate ties, the two elements that are linked occur in adjacent sentences, as in:

"Cory idolized Troye Sivan. He also loves to sing."

In this example, Cory is mentioned by name in the first sentence and then conveyed in the second sentence through the use of the pronoun "he," which renames Cory.

On the other hand, mediated ties occur through a link in an intervening sentence, such as:

"Hailey enjoys horseback riding. She attends lessons in the fall. She gets better every year."

In this example, the pronoun "she" is used as a cohesion device to tie the name and subject Hailey through all three sentences.

Finally, if two cohesive elements occur in nonadjacent sentences, they create a remote tie wherein the middle sentence of a paragraph or group of sentences might have nothing to do with the subject of the first or third, but cohesive elements inform or remind the reader of the third sentence of the first's subject.

Cohesion vs. Coherence

Although cohesion and coherence were considered to be the same thing until around the mid-1970s, the two have since been differentiated by M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan's 1973 "Cohesion in English," which says the two should be separated to better understand the finer nuances of the lexical and grammatical usage of both.

As Irwin Weiser put it in his article "Linguistics," cohesion is "now understood to be a textual quality," which can be attained through grammatical and lexical elements used within and between sentences to give readers a better understanding of context. On the other hand, says Weiser:

"Coherence refers to the overall consistency of a discourse—purpose, voice, content, style, form, and so on—and is in part determined by readers' perceptions of texts, dependent not only on linguistic and contextual information but also on readers' abilities to draw upon other kinds of knowledge."

Halliday and Hasan go on to clarify that cohesion occurs when the interpretation of one element is dependent on that of another, wherein "one presupposes the other, in the sense that it cannot be effectively decoded except by recourse to it." This makes the concept of cohesion a semantic notion, wherein all meaning is derived from the text and its arrangement.

Making Writing Clear

In composition, coherence refers to the meaningful connections that readers or listeners perceive in a written or oral text, often called linguistic or discourse coherence, and can occur on either the local or global level, depending on the audience and writer.

Coherence is directly increased by the amount of guidance a writer provides to the reader, either through context clues or through direct use of transitional phrases to direct the reader through an argument or narrative. Cohesion, by contrast, is a way to make writing more coherent when readers are able to make connections across sentences and paragraphs, says the Writing Center at UMass, adding:

"On the sentence level, this can include when the last few words of one set up information that appears in the first few words of the next. That’s what gives us our experience of flow."

In other words, cohesion is the semantic tool you use to make your writing more coherent.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Cohesion in Composition?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-cohesion-composition-1689863. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is Cohesion in Composition? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cohesion-composition-1689863 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Cohesion in Composition?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cohesion-composition-1689863 (accessed April 1, 2023).