Have you ever read a passage that flows (i.e. has cohesion) but it just … doesn’t make any sense, no matter how many times you read it? You can lexically parse the passage (i.e. makes grammatically sense) but you cannot grasp the meaning? If so, the passage probably lacks coherence.
What is coherence?
According to Joseph Williams2, author of Style – Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, a passage is coherent when the sentences merge into a unified passage. The passage’s author not only needs to link pairs of individual sentences, but they need to sequence the sentences so that together, the sentences are unified. To this end, Joseph Williams suggests focusing the topics to a limited number of concepts. By doing so, the author helps prevent scattering the reader’s sense of what a passage is globally about. Moreover, Joseph Williams suggests using “connectives”, helper words that link one sentence to the next, words such as: and, but, or, therefore, nonetheless, however, even though, despite.
But it’s … not that simple. Should connectives always be sued? According to Steven Pinker1, using too many connectives will belabor the obvious and potentially water down the material, patronizing the reader. On the other side of the spectrum, using an insufficient number of connectives can leave the reader puzzled and confused as to how one statement follows from the last.
Wanting to better understand how to achieve a coherence, I read the chapter “Coherence” in Steven Pinker’s book. In the section that follows, I’ll share the 13 of the different ways one sentence can flow to another. These different methods are also known as coherence relations.
The thirteen coherence relations in this section fall into one of three categories according to David Hume. These categories are: resemblance, contiguity, cause and effect.
Herons live in the northern United States. Herons live in most of Canada.
Herons have one thing in their favor: they are opportunities hunters. Herons have one thing not in their favor: they defend a fishing hole even when its frozen.
- in contrast
- on the other hand
In elaboration, a single event is describe in a generic way then in specific detail.
Example: Herons have one thing in their favor: they are total opportunists
- colon (:)
- that is
- in other words
- which is to say
- in addition
- notice that
Exemplification is when a generalization is followed by one or more examples
Herons are total opportunists. When the fish are frozen out, they’ll eat other things, including crustaceans, mice, voles, and small birds.
- for example
- for instance
- such as
One or more examples followed by a generalization.
When the fish are frozen out, herons will eat other things, including crustaceans, mice, voles, and small birds. They are total opportunists
- In general
- more general
Exception (generalization first)
Cape Cod winters are often mild and pleasant. Then there is this winter, the winter that never ends.
- on the other hand
- Then there is
Exception (exception first)
This winter seems like it will never end. Nonetheless, Cape Cod winters are often mild and pleasant.
The cold weather arrives and then the herons head south
The herons head south when the cold weather arrives
Cause and Effect
Result (cause and affect)
Young herons are inexperienced, so some of them migrate to Cape Cod.
- as a result
Some herons migrate to Cape Cod, because they are young and inexperienced.
- owing to
Violated Expectation (preventer-effect)
Herons have a tough time when the ponds freeze over. However, they will
hunt and eat many other things
Failed Prevention (effect-preventer)
Herons will hunt and eat many things in winter, even though the ponds are
- Even Though
When editing your own writing, you can use the above typical connectives to help guide the reader, using connectives to signals what logical connections you are trying to implant in their mind.
- Pinker, Steven. 2014. Sense of Style.
- Williams, Joseph. 1994. Style – Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. Fourth.