Cohesion in Composition

Sense on the Sentence Level

cohesion - passing the baton
M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan define cohesion as "the set of possibilities that exist in the language for making text hang together" (Cohesion in English, 1976/2013). (technotr/Getty Images)

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 a "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."

A fundamental element of discourse analysis and cognitive stylistics according to Anita Naciscione's "Stylistic Use of Phraseological Units in Discourse," cohesion is considered one of the basic theoretical concepts of semantic relationships. 

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 considered 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, such as in the sentence "Cory idolized Troye Sivan. He also loves to sing," where Cory is conveyed in the following sentence by the immediate tie of the word "he" in the following.

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." Here, the word 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.

Presupposing and the Presupposed

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

As Irwin Weiser puts it in his article "Linguistics," cohesion is "now understand 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, "coherence refers to the overall consistency of a discourse — its 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.