logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2



For the purposes of what follows and for ease of exemplification, we will focus on written texts.  Don't, however, lose sight of the fact that these features occur frequently in spoken discourse, too.


Cohesion vs. Coherence

Consider these two exchanges:

Q: Where's John?
A: He's in the garden.
Q: Where's John?
A: The grass needed cutting.

Two questions:
1. Are these both comprehensible?
2. What's the difference in making them comprehensible?
Click here when you have an answer.


Types of Cohesion in English

In the first dialogue, above, you saw that the pronoun he referred back to the name of the person, John.  That is known as anaphoric reference.  It means referring back to something already mentioned.

There are other sorts of referencing which can be set out like this:


Can you identify the four main sorts of referencing in this short email?

Thanks for that.  It's going to help, I think.
By the way, I'm going to take the kids out next Monday and wondered if you wanted to come.  It'll be a long drive for them but when we get there, I'll bet they'll love Chessington Zoo.
Let me know if you can make it.

Click here when you have identified one example of each type of referencing.

There is an additional type of exophoric referencing, not exemplified here, which is called homophoric.  It occurs when reference is to something outside the text and relies on the hearer / writer's knowledge of the cultural or social setting for its understanding.  So for example:
    We're going to the zoo
will be understood in many cultural, national or regional settings to refer only to a particular zoo known to both parties to the exchange, regardless of the fact that there are many zoos in the world.


Five ways to establish and maintain cohesion

The following draws heavily on Halliday and Hasan (1976) as does much else in this area of study.
We'll take each of the categories they identified and exemplify them with short written or spoken texts.

References and referents
The reference is the item doing the pointing in a text, the referent is the item to which it directs the hearer or reader.
The most common ways by far to achieve this type of cohesion is to use the English pronoun system, in particular, personal and demonstrative pronouns, but others, such as the former, the other etc. which work similarly, are also encountered.
Here are simple examples or two of the most common ways references and referents are used:
  1. Personal pronoun referencing (anaphoric):
    Personal pronoun referencing (cataphoric):
  2. Demonstrative pronoun referencing (anaphoric):
    Demonstrative pronoun referencing (cataphoric):
Substitution is the replacement of an item with something which refers to it and is often (as we see above) a simple pronoun reference.  It may, however, be more complex so it gets its own category.
Here are three examples of the system at work:
  1. Nominal clause substitution:
  2. Verbal substitution:
  3. Clausal substitution:
Involves, as the name suggests, simply omitting the referent and relying on context and co-text for the sense to be clear to the hearer (usually) or writer (rarely).
Here are three examples of the system at work with the white triangle indicating where the item it omitted:
  1. Nominal clause ellipsis:
  2. Verb ellipsis:
  3. Clausal ellipsis:
We'll consider four types only here (although there are more in the guides to the areas).  This area also includes the use of conjuncts which lie outside the clause structure.
  1. Additive conjunct:
  2. Adversative conjunction:
  3. Clausal conjunction:
  4. Temporal conjunction:
Lexical cohesion
This is a varied category and refers to how lexical choices act to make a text cohere.  It is most obvious in written texts because there are usually three or so topic areas which form threads of connected ideas through the text.
  1. Repetition:
  2. Synonym:
  3. Hyponym:
  4. Superordinate or hypernym:
  5. General term (vague):

Most of the examples above are, or could be, in spoken texts so now, to balance things, we'll turn to a written text.

letter writing

An example text

a letter to a newspaper  

For this section, you need to download the sample text which is used to exemplify the discussion.  Save / print the text or have it open in a new tab to refer to as we go along.

This is not a complete analysis of the text but in the following table, the key types of referencing and examples from the text are identified.

Type of cohesion Specifically Explanation Example
REFERENCE MARKERS PRONOMIAL Using a pronoun to refer to a noun Line 3 – it refers to the council
DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUN Use this, that, these etc. to refer to a noun or clause Line 5 – that refers to the council's position
SUBSTITUTION NOMINAL Using a word to 'stand for' the longer noun Line 7 – one refers to area of the town.
VERBAL Doing the same to 'stand for' a verb Line 16 – do replaces encourage
CLAUSAL Doing the same to 'stand for' a clause Line 22 – do so replaces use the town's facilities
ELLIPSIS NOMINAL Leaving out a noun which is understood Line 20 – the service is not repeated for the second verb is reduced
VERBAL Leaving out a verb which is understood Line 4/5 – is suggesting is not repeated
CLAUSAL Leaving out a clause which is understood Line 18 – the sentences stops at not, without repeating have access to etc.
CONJUNCTION: ADDITIVE Adding something of equal merit Line 22 – and Line 19 – What's more (and lots more!)
ADVERSATIVE Adding a contrast Line 16 – but
CAUSAL Adding a reason Line 21 – therefore
TEMPORAL Time related linkage Line 12 – After
LEXICAL COHESION: SAME ITEM Using the same word council is repeated often
SYNONYM OR HYPONYM Using a related word public transport and bus service
SUPERORDINATE Using a more general term to cover a range facilities is used to refer to shops, offices, banks etc.
‘GENERAL’ ITEM Usually a vague generalised word Line 31 – exercises

Notice, too, the expression in the same boat (line 27) which substitutes for almost everything in the letter.


Shell nouns: another source of cohesion

This guide is about cohesion and mostly focuses on the ways in which it is achieved via referencing and connective devices.
There is, however, an additional lexical trick in most languages through which entire texts and sets of propositions can be effectively linked through the use of shell nouns.
These are discussed at a greater level of detail in the guide to them, linked below, so here we will just cite more or less what is said in the guide to nouns in general to give you a flavour of how they operate to increase internal cohesion in texts.
Briefly, what shell nouns do is to encapsulate ideas in a way that makes the noun itself the shell for a set of propositions.  For example in:

The problem is that too many vehicles use the new bypass causing congestion at peak times so the aim is to limit the traffic by improving and extending alternative routes through the suburbs.

we have two shell nouns, problem and aim which respectively encapsulate the propositions of identifying an issue and seeking a solution.
The shell noun is usually followed by the proposition that it encapsulates linked either with a that-clause (problem) or just a simple copula such as be (aim).
Shell nouns fall into recognisable categories which are explained and exemplified in the guide to them.  They include, for example, nouns such as:

ability, advantage, aim, aspect, belief, capacity, context, danger, difference, doubt, drawback, effort, event, fact, idea, knowledge, mistake, mystery, need, opportunity, part, permission, place, plan, position, possibility, priority, problem, problem, procedure, proof, question, reality, reason, result, sign, similarity, situation, situation, solution, struggle, theory, time, trouble, truth, view, way, worry

The use of shell nouns is particularly common is some kinds of academic texts in which the author is concerned to set up a series of propositions under an overall heading of, e.g., reason, problem, theory, outcome, necessity and so on.
In terms of cohesion, you can see the efficacy of using shell nouns by comparing these two short texts:

  1. People in the organisation are spending too much duplicating work that is being done in other departments leading to unfocused activity and often to internal contradictions.  This must be addressed by setting out clearer definitions of people's roles.  It can be tackled in one of three ways ...
  2. People in the organisation are spending too much duplicating work that is being done in other departments leading to unfocused activity and often to internal contradictions.  This wasteful duplication must be addressed by setting out clearer definitions of people's roles.  It can be tackled in one of three ways ...

It should be clear that in the second version, the issue is discussed within a noun shell, the expression wasteful duplication, which is quite specific and more carefully defined than it would be with the use of a more generalised shell noun such as problem.
In the first version, the use of it in the final sentence is potentially confusing because the reader is left to surmise what the referent might be.  In the second version, because we have a shell noun, it is quite clear what it refers to: wasteful duplication.
That means that the writer can thereafter refer to the whole set of propositions with a simple pronouns, this, that or it, used to refer to the wasteful duplication rather than vaguely pointing at something in the text.
It also means that the text hangs together much more successfully because the reader is aware of exactly what is being discussed.  In other words, cohesion is achieved.
If you would like a list of potential shell nouns, click here.

Here's a diagrammatic way to show what resources are available to maintain and construct cohesion:

You may find all of the above referred to as discourse markers and some of them are.  However, properly understood, the term discourse marker applies to an item used to manage spoken interaction so things like:
    Yes, I see your point but ...
    Well, for a start ...
    Do you see?

etc. are discourse markers which contribute to coherent exchanges.
On this site, we avoid the term discourse marker except in this narrower sense and prefer cohesive device for the items we are concerned with in this guide.


The role of articles

There are three ways that article use contributes to cohesion and referencing.

  1. The first time a noun is mentioned, it is usually preceded (if it is countable) by the indefinite article.  The second time by the definite article, signalling to the reader / hearer that the reference is to a known item.  For example,
        A strange car was parked outside my house.  It's difficult to find a parking space in my street so I hoped the car wouldn't be there later.
    In that example, the use of the car later signals that it is a known entity and refers to the same car.
  2. Note however, that we can use the definite article to signal the only possible entity as in, e.g.:
        A car drew up and the driver got out.
    In this case, the definite article signals to the reader / hearer that it is the driver of a particular car, not just any driver.
    Consider the oddness of:
        A car drew up and a driver got out
    but the acceptability of:
        A car drew up and a passenger got out
  3. The definite article may also refer to something outside the text which is known to both speaker / writer and reader / hearer because they share a common cultural or social milieu.  For example,
        The minister has replied to our letter
    Now, minister can mean a politician or a member of the clergy and there are probably many thousands of them around the world.  It is clear, however, from the use of the definite article that a particular minister, known to both participants in the discourse, is meant here.
    Another example, of what is called homophoric reference is to entities such as the government, the Queen, the President, the Czar etc. when knowledge of the culture precludes any other meaning.
    Exophoric referencing cannot, technically, be called cohesive because it does not connect items in the text.  It is, however, a potential barrier to understanding and makes the text coherent.


What is being connected?

Mention is briefly made above to theme-rheme structures and here's a little more on that, erm, theme.
There are three types of theme that contribute to cohesion in texts, whether written or spoken:

This is important because, although we may know what forms of cohesion there are in English, unless we know what to connect with what, the picture is incomplete and the knowledge is unused (and useless).  The analysis of theme-rheme structures allows us to identify where and to what references should be made, in other words.

There is a separate guide to theme-rheme structures on this site, linked below, where you should go for more detail but, briefly, the theme is the jumping off point for the clause and what follows it is the rheme.  That rheme often forms the theme of the next clause with a new rheme which, in turn forms the theme of a subsequent clause.  The structure of this form of cohesion can be exemplified like this:

Mary came to the party and she brought her brother.  He turned out to be an interesting person because he worked in television with some quite famous people.  They included some of my favourite personalities.

In which we have:

  1. The first theme (Mary) with its rheme (came to the party) and then the theme repeated, with linking additive coordination (and) and pronoun substitution (she) with a new rheme brought her brother.
  2. That rheme forms the theme of the next clause (turned out to be an interesting person) which is connected by subordination (because) with the next pronoun substitution (he) with its rheme (worked in television with some quite famous people).
  3. That rheme becomes the next theme (they) which has the rheme included some of my favourite personalities.

And so on.  We would expect at some time that my favourite personalities will become the topical theme of another clause which will have its own rheme.  It not always as straightforward as this, of course, because rhemes do not always immediately (or ever) become themes and may have to wait a little before, say, Rheme 3 becomes Theme 8.  More on this is in the guide.
It looks like this, with the cohesive links (both topical and textual) underlined (and a diagram is often a good way to present the structure in a classroom).

The moral is that teaching people how to make texts cohesive without teaching what items need cohesive links is a waste of valuable time.

Related guides
articles for more on article use
substitution and ellipsis for more about how these are used to maintain cohesion
deixis for a more technical guide to the area
pro-forms for more on pronouns and more
synonymy for more on this and related concepts such as simile and metaphor
subordination and coordination for the introductory guide to these areas and links for more
genre for a general guide to the area which considers coherence in mo0re detail
theme and rheme for the guide to the area
shell nouns for the guide to a useful lexical cohesion device that is often under exploited in classrooms
discourse guides the in-service index to this area (including genre and theme-rheme structures)

Of course there's a test.

Nothing in this area is complete without reference to
Halliday MAK & Hasan R, 1976, Cohesion in English, Harlow: Longman