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12.4: Referring Back to Make the Connection (Cohesion)

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    In the popular handbook They Say I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein suggest that as readers move from one idea to the next, they need to know not just what is new, but how it connects to what came before. Graff and Birkenstein visualize this as two hands, one pointing back in the text and one pointing forward. We remind the reader of the old and put it into relationship with the new. But how do we reference ideas we’ve already covered without repeating ad nauseum?

    Two hands point to each other, one white, one brown.
    Image by Tumisu from Pixabay under the Pixabay License.


    Repetition sounds like something boring we are supposed to avoid, but is actually essential to cohesion. Repeating a short key phrase can link two sentences or paragraphs by showing what topic they have in common.  If we find we are using a particular phrase too much, we can vary the wording without changing the concept. As an example, imagine we want to prove the following thesis:

    Economic inequality in America will only increase unless the government takes the excess possessions of the ultra-rich.

    We can be pretty sure we’ll need to repeat the key phrase “economic inequality” in ensuing paragraphs or substitute variations like “inequality,” “economic stratification” or “the disparity between rich and poor,” to remind readers of our central idea.  That will allow us to suggest the causes of inequality, define the extent of inequality, and make predictions about future inequality without seeming like we are jumping from one random point to another.

    If we think the reader may not remember what we are referring to, or if its complexity makes it worth summing up, we might need to briefly restate an idea. We can paraphrase and condense a point made in a previous paragraph into just a few words.  Often looking at a previous topic sentence can help us focus on the key idea and describe the heart of it.

    Pointing words

    In order to remind the reader that we have already discussed an idea, we can use what Graff and Birkenstein call pointing words like “this” or “that.” These combine with the repeated phrase or concept to work like an arrow pointing back to a section of a previous paragraph.  For example, we might use the phrase “this growing inequity” or “that very economic inequality.”  The words "this" and "that" reassure readers they can go back and look up the earlier idea if needed.  

    Abstract nouns

    To make the reference to the prior idea clear, we can couple "this” or “that" with an abstract noun, or a word that represents the kind of idea we are talking about. You may also see these referred to as anaphoric nouns or shell nouns.

    Below are a few common abstract nouns that can refer back to an established idea.  There are many others. As you'll notice, the first few refer to elements of an argument.

    • reason / evidence
    • claim
    • fact
    • argument
    • findings / conclusion
    • purpose
    • cause / factor
    • effect / result / consequence
    • idea / concept
    • subject / issue / topic
    • phenomenon
    • problem / challenge / difficulty
    • solution
    • feature / characteristic / aspect 
    • method / technique / strategy / approach / way / manner
    • tendency / trend / pattern

    Examples of these connection techniques

    Here is an example template that combines repetition, a pointing word, "this," and an abstract noun, "idea":

    As we have seen, _____________.  This idea has implications for _____________.

    Let's look at a more extended example. Say that we want to write about inequality in the early 21st century.  The topic stays the same, and the time period changes.  First we give some history about the late 1800s.  Then we describe how inequality changed over time, and we want to start a paragraph about the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in 2011.   What is the connection between an old idea and a new idea?  We might decide that Occupy Wall Street was a direct result of inequality and start the paragraph thus:

    The increased inequality that became obvious after the 2007 financial crisis eventually led to a backlash.  In September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protest trumpeted the cause of the “99%” of Americans who were left out while the top 1% enjoyed most of the profits of American capitalism.

    The new paragraph thus points back to the cause and ahead to the effect, signaling this causal relationship with the word “led.” Note that the phrase “increased inequality” refers to a core topic of the overall argument, and the phrase “that became obvious after the 2007 financial crisis” reminds us of the concept developed in the previous paragraph.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Choose one of the sample annotated essays contained in this textbook.  Go through it and circle any repetition, pointing words, or abstract nouns that refer back to an idea. Draw an arrow from each referring word back to the earlier part of the essay it refers to. How do these words help make the essay more cohesive and easier to follow for you as a reader? Discuss with classmates or write a few sentences of reflection.

    This page titled 12.4: Referring Back to Make the Connection (Cohesion) is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .