Cohesion and Coherence
With a key sentence established, the next task is to shape the body of your paragraph to be both cohesive and coherent. As Williams and Bizup8 explain, cohesion is about the “sense of flow” (how each sentence fits with the next), while coherence is about the “sense of the whole”.9 Some students worry too much about “flow” and spend a lot of time on sentence-level issues to promote it. We encourage you to focus on underlying structure. For the most part, a text reads smoothly when it conveys a thoughtful and well organized argument or analysis. Focus first and most on your ideas, on crafting an ambitious analysis. The most useful guides advise you to first focus on getting your ideas on paper and then revising for organization and wordsmithing later, refining the analysis as you go. Therefore, we will discuss creating cohesion and coherent paragraphs here as if you already have some rough text written and are in the process of smoothing out your prose to clarify your argument for both your reader and yourself. Deal with cohesion and coherence during the editing--not the drafting--process.
Cohesion refers to the flow from sentence to sentence. For example, compare these passages about how cliques form:
Version A (Which We Rewrote):
Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. If an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other, according to balance theory (1363).10 Bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties, Granovetter argues (1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. If two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. Only weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends” can connect people in different cliques.
Version B (The Original By Giuffre):
Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. In brief, balance theory tells us that if an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other (1363). Granovetter argues that because of this, bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties (1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. This is because if two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. The only way, therefore, that people in different cliques can be connected is through weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends.” 11
Version A has the exact same information as version B, but it is harder to read because it is less cohesive. In version B, however, each sentence begins with old information and bridges to new information. Here’s Version B again with the relevant parts emboldened:
Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. In brief, balance theory tells us that if an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other (1363). Granovetter argues that because of this, bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties (1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. This is because if two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. The only way, therefore, that people in different cliques can be connected is through weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends.”
The first sentence establishes the key idea of balance theory. The next sentence begins with balance theory and ends with social ties, which is the focus of the third sentence. The concept of weak ties connects the third and fourth sentences and concept of cliques the fifth and sixth sentences. In Version A, in contrast, the first sentence focuses on balance theory, but then the second sentence makes a new point about social ties before telling the reader that the point comes from balance theory. The reader has to take in a lot of unfamiliar information before learning how it fits in with familiar concepts. Version A is coherent, but the lack of cohesion makes it tedious to read.
The lesson is this: if you or others perceive a passage you’ve written to be awkward or choppy, even though the topic is consistent, try rewriting it to ensure that each sentence begins with a familiar term or concept. If your points don’t naturally daisy-chain together like the examples given here, consider numbering them. For example, you may choose to write, “Proponents of the legislation point to four major benefits.” Then you could discuss four loosely related ideas without leaving your reader wondering how they relate.
While cohesion is about the sense of flow; coherence is about the sense of the whole. For example, here’s a passage that is cohesive (from sentence to sentence) but lacks coherence:
Your social networks and your location within them shape the kinds and amount of information that you have access to. Information is distinct from data, in that information makes some kind of generalization about a person, thing, or population. Defensible generalizations about society can be either probabilities (i.e., statistics) or patterns (often from qualitative analysis). Such probabilities and patterns can be temporal, spatial, or simultaneous.
Each sentence in the above passage starts with a familiar idea and progresses to a new one, but it lacks coherence—a sense of being about one thing. Good writers often write passages like that when they’re free-writing or using the drafting stage to cast a wide net for ideas. A writer weighing the power and limits of social network analysis may free-write something like that example and, from there, develop a more specific plan for summarizing key insights about social networks and then discussing them with reference to the core tenets of social science. As a draft, an incoherent paragraph often points to a productive line of reasoning; one just has to continue thinking it through in order to identify a clear argumentative purpose for each paragraph. With its purpose defined, each paragraph, then, becomes a lot easier to write. Coherent paragraphs aren’t just about style; they are a sign of a thoughtful, well developed analysis.
Some guides advise you to end each paragraph with a specific concluding sentence, in a sense, to treat each paragraph as a kind of mini-essay. But that’s not a widely held convention. Most well written academic pieces don’t adhere to that structure. The last sentence of the paragraph should certainly be in your own words (as in, not a quote), but as long as the paragraph succeeds in carrying out the task that it has been assigned by its key sentence, you don’t need to worry about whether that last sentence has an air of conclusiveness. For example, consider these paragraphs about the cold fusion controversy of the 1980s that appeared in a best-selling textbook12:
The experiment seemed straightforward and there were plenty of scientists willing to try it. Many did. It was wonderful to have a simple laboratory experiment on fusion to try after the decades of embarrassing attempts to control hot fusion. This effort required multi-billion dollar machines whose every success seemed to be capped with an unanticipated failure. ‘Cold fusion’ seemed to provide, as Martin Fleischmann said during the course of that famous Utah press conference, ‘another route’—the route of little science.
In that example, the first and last sentences in the paragraph are somewhat symmetrical: the authors introduce the idea of accessible science, contrast it with big science, and bring it back to the phrase “little science.” Here’s an example from the same chapter of the same book that does not have any particular symmetry13:
The struggle between proponents and critics in a scientific controversy is always a struggle for credibility. When scientists make claims which are literally ‘incredible’, as in the cold fusion case, they face an uphill struggle. The problem Pons and Fleischmann had to overcome was that they had credibility as electrochemists but not as nuclear physicists. And it was nuclear physics where their work was likely to have its main impact.
The last sentence of the paragraph doesn’t mirror the first, but the paragraph still works just fine. In fact, it serves as a transition into what is likely the focus of the next paragraph. In general, every sentence of academic writing should add some unique content. Don’t trouble yourself with having the last sentence in every paragraph serve as a mini-conclusion. Instead, worry about developing each point sufficiently and making your logical sequence clear.
Cohesion & Coherence: College Writing 3.9. Authored by: English for Busy Students. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.
Creating Coherence with Transitions
To ensure continuity within a paragraph a writer must use key terms and also make use of other techniques such as transitions. Transitions ensure that the reader understands what each sentence says and indicate how the sentences and paragraphs are logically related to each other and the “story.” Transitions should be placed at the beginning of a sentence for strongest continuity, usually set off by a comma.
If transitions are missing, the logical relationship between sentences can be unclear and may even be nonexistent. Don't assume your reader knows the relationship between the sentence. The importance of adding transitions is shown in the following example:
To determine the effects of lack of lunch on children’s school performance, we examined grades and income measures. We found they were negatively correlated. ______________, lack of food makes learning in school more difficult.
The logical relationship between the first and second sentence of this example is not immediately obvious to the reader. Possible transitions that one could fill in between these two sentences include the following:
- To determine the effects of lack of lunch on children’s school performance, we examined grades and income measures. We found they were negatively correlated. In addition, lack of food makes learning in school more difficult.
- To determine the effects of lack of lunch on children’s school performance, we examined grades and income measures. We found they were negatively correlated. Therefore, lack of food makes learning in school more difficult.
- To determine the effects of lack of lunch on children’s school performance, we examined grades and income measures. We found they were negatively correlated. On the other hand, lack of food makes learning in school more difficult.
When the transition is missing between these two sentences, most readers may guess that the intended relationship is “in addition,” when it really is "therefore." But readers should not have to guess. Sometimes readers can come to a very different conclusion than you intend!
Here is another example:
We determined sensitivity to allergens in children who have pets. We measured children’s histamine levels and logged whether they had pets or not.
In the above example, the logical relationship between the first and second sentences is also not clear because a transition is missing. Once the transition is added in, the relationship between the two sentences becomes obvious.
We determined sensitivity to allergens in children who have pets. To do this, we measured children’s histamine levels and logged whether they had pets or not.
Use transitions to link ideas, but do not overuse them. Certain transitions are outdated or are used in British, but not American, English, such as: hitherto, whilst, and henceforth.
|Transitions That Show Sequence or Time|
|as soon as||finally||next|
|at first||first, second, third||soon|
|at last||in the first place||then|
|Transitions That Show Position|
|above||across||at the bottom|
|at the top||behind||below|
|to the left, to the right, to the side||under||where|
|Transitions That Show a Conclusion|
|in the final analysis||therefore||thus|
|Transitions That Continue a Line of Thought|
|because||besides the fact||following this idea further|
|in addition||in the same way||moreover|
|looking further||considering…, it is clear that|
|Transitions That Change a Line of Thought|
|nevertheless||on the contrary||on the other hand|
|Transitions That Show Importance|
|in fact||more important||most important|
|Transitions That Introduce the Final Thoughts in a Paragraph or Essay|
|most of all||least of all||last of all|
|All-Purpose Transitions to Open Paragraphs or to Connect Ideas Inside Paragraphs|
|admittedly||at this point||certainly|
|granted||it is true||generally speaking|
|in general||in this situation||no doubt|
|no one denies||obviously||of course|
|to be sure||undoubtedly||unquestionably|
|Transitions that Introduce Examples|
|for instance||for example|
|Transitions That Clarify the Order of Events or Steps|
|first, second, third||generally, furthermore, finally||in the first place, also, last|
|in the first place, furthermore, finally||in the first place, likewise, lastly|
Transitions to Use with Supporting & Concluding Sentences
A strong paragraph moves seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use transitional words and phrases. A transition is a connecting word that describes a relationship between ideas. Take another look at the earlier example:
There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependence on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
Each of the underlined words is a transition word. Words such as first and second are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that they have another point to make in support of the topic sentence. Other transition words that show order include third, also, and furthermore.
The transition word because is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas). Other transition words of consequence include as a result, so that, since, or for this reason.
The following chart provides some useful transition words to connect supporting sentences and concluding sentences.
|For Supporting Sentences|
|above all||but||for instance||in particular||moreover||subsequently|
|aside from||correspondingly||however||likewise||on one hand||to begin with|
|at the same time||for example||in addition||meanwhile||on the contrary|
|For Concluding Sentences|
|after all||all things considered||in brief||in summary||on the whole||to sum up|
|all in all||finally||in conclusion||on balance||thus|
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from Writing in College. Authored by: Amy Guptil. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from The Perfect Paragraph in "Guide to Writing." Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY-NC-SA
This page last updated on June 5, 2020.