TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 16 No.
4 December 1982
Cohesion Is Not Coherence*
Patricia L. Carrell The purpose of this paper is to criticize the concept of cohesion as a measure of the coherence of a text. The paper begins with a brief overview of Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) cohesion concept as an index of textual coherence. Next, the paper criticizes the concept of cohesion as a measure of textual coherence in the light of schema-theoretical views of text processing (e.g. reading) as an interactive process between the text and the reader. This criticism, which is drawn from both theoretical and empirical work in schema theory, attempts to show that text-analytic procedures such as Halliday and Hasan’s cohesion concept, which encourage the belief that coherence is located in the text and can be defined as a configuration of textual features, and which fail to take the contributions of the text’s reader into account, are incapable of accounting for textual coherence. The paper concludes with a caution to second language (EFL/ESL) teachers and researchers not to expect cohesion theory to be the solution to EFL/ESL reading/writing coherence problems at the level of the text.
The past several years have seen a phenomenal growth in interest in text as a unit of language beyond the sentence level. As interest on the part of theoreticians and first language researchers has evolved from early preoccupation with phonology, then syntax, later semantics, and recently pragmatics and text, so too has the interest of applied and second language researchers and practitioners similarly evolved. Thus, in applied linguistics in general, and in the fields of ESL and second language research in particular, we find r ourselves in an era of considerable interest in text—discourse level structures and processes. A number of different approaches have been taken toward the study of texts and to determining what constitutes a coherent text as opposed to a sequence of sentences which would not be considered a text. Many researchers have been hard at work trying to understand the fundamental properties of texts and some theoretical accounts of them have been pro-posed. Often these accounts are in terms of linguistic theories of discourse, i.e., textual analysis techniques which parallel sentence analysis techniques. These approaches are even sometimes called text grammars. Among others Ms. Carrell is Professor of Linguistics at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where she teaches in the MA. in EFL/ESL University of Hawaii. L program. She is currently visiting Professor of ESL at the A version of this paper was presented at the Fourth Los Angeles Second Language Research Forum (SLHF-4) held at UCLA, April 28-30, 1982.
cohesion theory attempts to describe the patterns in the fabric or texture of a text. The word TEXT is used in linguistics to refer to any passage. this is criticism which has emerged in the light of schema theory which views text processing as an interactive process between the text and the reader.
. that does form a unified whole. The purpose of this paper. macrostructuralist Teun van Dijk (1972. of whatever length. 1972). In other words. The second part reviews recent criticism of the cohesive view of coherence. In the main. he can normally decide without difficulty whether it forms a unified whole or is lust a collection of unrelated sentences. the first American transformationalist Zellig Harris (1970). Hence. and more recently propositional analyst Walter Kintsch (1974). We know. also its organization. This book is about what makes the difference between the two. Stein and Glenn (1979). Halliday and Hasan treat discourse properties as linguistic or language-like properties. in order to establish what are the properties of texts in English. spoken or written. known as cohesion theory. in terms of its current appeal in applied linguistics. and Rumelhart (1975). The most influential of the textual analysis techniques. In proposing the concept of cohesion as a factor in what is generally called a text’s coherence. and therefore. Cohesion Theory Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) treatment of cohesion as a linguistic property contributing to coherence is in the tradition of all the previously mentioned text grammars in that it attempts to treat text primarily as a linguistic phenomenon.Cohesion is Not Coherence
to attempt a linguistic type of analysis of connected discourse or text have been the American structuralist Charles Fries (1952). unlike structural analyses of a text. and story grammarians Mandler and Johnson (1977). has been the approach of Michael Halliday and Rugaiya Hasan (1976). Halliday and Hasan prefer the term texture for the kind of text property that is more commonly referred to as coherence. The first part of the paper reviews Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) cohesion concept as an index of textual coherence. We shall attempt to identify these. This suggests that there are objective factors involved—there must be certain features which are characteristic of texts and not found otherwise. Tborndyke (1977). we shall be discussing things that the native speaker of the language knows’ already. the tagmernicists Kenneth Pike (1967) and Robert Longacre (1968. whether any specimen of our own language constitutes a TEXT or not. This criticism is both theory-based and the result of empirical research on cohesion. As always in linguistic description. 1977). however. is threefold. as a general rule. specifically ESL. and wbat it is that distinguishes a text from a disconnected sequence of sentences. (1976:1) However. The third and final part of the paper relates this criticism of cohesion as a measure of coherence to the teaching of reading and writing in a second language. they say: If a speaker of English hears or reads a passage of language which is more than one sentence in length.
that if a text has texture that will be due to certain linguistic features in the text. etc. cohesion is displayed in the ties that exist within text between a presupposed item and a presupposing item.’ A text has texture. and several kinds of ellipsis. (1976:26) According to Halliday and Hasan (1976). involving words like and. Last night he cooked spaghetti. Halliday and Hasan claim that text derives texture. yet. coherence. the definite article the. (2) substitution. as well as texture in general. in the sentences John makes good meals. “Cohesion does not concern what a text means. or texture. (3) conjunction. i.” (1976:4) Halliday and Hasan present a taxonomy of various types of cohesive ties or relations in four main groups: (1) reference. For example. or as they call it texture. and is not of any particular relevance or interest here. etc. according to Halliday and Hasan. cohesion is not a matter of content or textual meaning.e. (1976:2) Thus. however.. so. and (4) lexical cohesion. Register refers to the variety of language which is appropriate for the situation of the speech event. Although cohesion concerns semantic relations. as linguistic relations can be seen at several points in their discussion: What we are investigating in this book are the resources that English has for creating texture. from these cohesive ties. Cohesion. is Halliday and Hasan’s main concern and central focus. That Halliday and Hasan view these cohesion relations. (1976:2) Coherence. including antecedentanaphor relations. do. it concerns how the text is constructed as a semantic edifice.. according to Halliday and Hasan. which has to do with repeated occurrences of the same or related lexical items. the pronoun he in the second sentence is the presupposing item. Halliday and Hasan suggest that: “The concept of ties makes it possible to analyze a text in terms of its cohesive properties and give a systematic account of its patterns of texture. there will be certain linguistic features present in that passage which can be identified as contributing to its total unity and giving it texture. “Cohesion is part of the system 6fWffguagP’7tlE¶ Halliday and Hasan’s main point seems to be that mere coherence of
. including such various pronoun-like forms as one. If a passage of English containing more than one sentence is perceived as a text. is the combination of semantic configurations of two different kinds: register and cohesion. but. and John in the first sentence is the presupposed item.. It derives the texture from the fact that it functions as a unity with respect to its environment. and this is what distinguishes it from being something that is not a text.Cohesion is Not Coherence
Cohesion Is Not Coherence
The concept of TEXTURE is entirely appropriate to express the property of 'being a text. Cohesion refers to the semantic relations in a text which Haiti-day and Hasan claim make the test cohere. is created by t e linguistic resources of the language. and demonstrative pronouns. they are claiming that coherence.
cohesion theory. this is exactly the mistake Halliday and Hasan have made.
Criticisms of the Cohesive View of Coherence: From Theoretical Considerations
The cohesion view of textual coherence has been criticized by a number of researchers from several different perspectives. and the repeated occurrences of certain words would be the consequence of content coherence.Cohesion is Not Coherence
content is insufficient to make a text coherent. he. what is important is not only the text. In a coherent biography of Churchill. such as cohesive ties. for example. The criticism this paper is concerned with however. etc. . that there must be some additional linguistic property. (1980: 179) Morgan and Sellner argue that it is a mistake to construe cohesive ties like these as cause rather than effect. co
. they say. but what the reader or listener does with the text.e. In the schema-theoretical view of text processing. The source of coherence would lie in the content. One source of criticism comes from people such as Karen Feathers (1981) who argues that cohesion theory operates on the superficial surface structure of a text in establishing the cohesive ties. in effect. propositional analysis. him. and so on. Feathers finds more useful and more revealing an approach that first analyzes a text into its underlying propositional units and then looks for cohesive ties
between the propositions. Schema a theory maintains that processing a text is an interactive process between t and the prior background knowledge or memory schemata of the listener or reader. Schema theory is an approach to information processing emanating from research in cognitive science—i. Morgan and Sellner (1980) provide some of the strongest criticism of Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) cohesive theory of coherence. his. rather than the surface structures. that contributes to the coherence of a text. that there must be some additional linguistic property (like cohesion) that makes a text coherent. According to Morgan and Sellner: “ . has emerged in the light of schema-theoretical views of text processing. rather. artificial intelligence. linguistics. its structure and content. text grammar. Morgan and Sellner’s criticism centers on Halliday and Hasan’s point that mere coherence of content does not suffice to make a text coherent. research in cognitive psychology. Morgan and Sellner argue. which operate on text as though it occurred in a vacuum—schema theory takes the text processors into account. that coherence of a text is a matter of content which happens to have linguistic consequences... (Bobrow and Norman 1975). Coming from this schema-theoretic orientation. not something that was a source of coherence. But. . Unlike the textual analysis approaches—story grammar. they say: one would expect frequent mention of words like Churchill. etc.
is not one between elements in a text. not to the linguistic expression six cooking apples. the relation between two expressions. into a dish. This anaphoric function of them. to the author’s children. the writer uses it to refer) to six cooking apples (real-world objects). there are two different ways we might interpret the cohesive relation Halliday and Hasan have in mind. But this does not seem to be what Halliday and Hasan have in mind. In other words. Furthermore. As Morgan and Sellner argue. (1980:179) To show this. they point out is an instruction to put apples. gives cohesion to the two sentences. as a text and not as two separate sentences. how can we know what them refers to? What leads to the conclusion that them. is an epiphenomenon of content coherence. say. ask Morgan and Sellner. Clearly this can’t be a cohesive re at ion as defined by Halliday and Hasan Or.Cohesion is Not Coherence
hesion. used to refer to the same thing. or is anaphoric to. it is
. or the pages of the cookbook. But. or anything else for that matter? It is not knowledge of language that leads to this conclusion. Halliday and Hasan say that texture or coherence is created by these linguistic items and the cohesive relation which exists between them. the noun phrase six cooking apples in the first sentence. and Halliday and Hasan give no reason to believe that this derived kind of relation plays a direct role in understanding text or determining properties such as coherence. it’s a relation between something in a text and something outside the text.’ but the act of referring to the apples by using certain words. in fact. It is our background knowledge of cooking and of the author’s purpose. Morgan and Sellner examine76e of Halliday arid Hasan’s first and simplest examples. insofar as any sense can be made of Halliday and Hasan’s description of it. as well as our ability to reason. then. Halliday and Hasan say that it is clear that them refers to the six cooking apples. they say. Morgan and Sellner argue. The sentence. it could be interpreted as the relation of coreference. there would be no way of knowing what them is intended to refer to. (1976:2) Halliday and Hasan argue that them in the second sentence refers back to. in this instance six cooking apples. Halliday and Hasan (1976) go on to argue that the texture or coherence of this text is provided by the cohesive relation that exists between the word them and the words six cooking apples. Without this latter assumption. Morgan and Sellner (1980) point out that them does not refer back to something that has gone before. Put them into a fireproof dish. so that we interpret them as a whole. But this relation. It could be interpreted as the relation of reference. Halliday and Hasan take the following two sentences and ask us to suppose we find them in a cookbook: Wash and core six cooking apples. not words. and the assumption that the recipe is coherent. is intended to refer to the apples and not. and them. Halliday and Hasan are mistaken in taking the coherence relation in this example as a clear and objective fact. Them refers (or more accurately stated. between the word them and the apples them is used to refer to. (1980:180) Thus. It is not the apples which have ‘gone before.
The illusion of lexical cohesion is created_by the text’s coherence. This mini-text coheres. The picnic was ruined. as Morgan and Sellner point out. They did this by correlating the proportional use of cohesive ties by twelfth grade students in written essays with holistic coherence rankings given by the students’ rhetoric instructors. rather. and not the effect of coherence. I maintain. chains of words like Obviously.” (1980:180) Halliday and Hasan have misconstrued all their examples in exactly the same way. as Morgan and Sellner argued. And. and not the effect. it is clear that Halliday and Hasan intend this as a case of a relation of linguistic form: “It is not by virtue of any referential relation that there is a cohesive force set up between two occurrences of a lexical item. Tierney and Mosenthal (1981) studied the extent to which Halliday and Hasan’s cohesion concept correlated with coherence. Again. according to Halliday and Hasan. topic and familiarity) controlled for.
. nor that they have shown cohesion to be the cause. (1976:284). with several other variables of interest in the study (e. This writer agrees with Morgan and Sellner’s position that Halliday and Hasan have not shown that their view of lexical cohesion has any explanatory value. not because there is a necessary linguistic lexical cohesive tie between picnic and corkscrew but rather because we can access familiar schema for interpreting it in which picnics and corkscrews go together. the notion collapses entirely when Halliday and Hasan extend the notion of lexical cohesion to instances of chains of related lexical items in a text. a text containing these lexical items will likely be coherent insofar as their use is indicative of a common overall topic. though.g. the cohesion exists as a direct relation between the forms themselves. say Morgan and Sellner. by taking certain aspects of linguistic form as the cause.Cohesion is Not Coherence
precisely “because we assume the text is coherent that we infer that them is intended to refer to the apples. They found that topic accounted for most of the variation in cohesive categories—in other words. is that there is an independent linguistic notion of cohesion that cannot be reduced to content. and all three of them report results consistent with Morgan and Sellner’s theory-based criticism of Halliday and Hasan. This shows up mostly sharply in Halliday and Hasan’s discussion of lexical cohesion. For or anyone who cannot access such a schema the text will fail to cohere. Criticisms of the Cohesive View of Coherence: From Empirical Studies Three separate empirical studies of cohesion have examined the relationship of cohesion to coherence. The essays were elicited under controlled conditions. for example. No one remembered to bring a corkscrew. This type of cohesion arises. rather than as effect. Halliday and Hasan’s position. of coherence. from repetition of some lexical items or from occurrences of lexical items that are related in certain ways. But Halliday and Hasan provide no reason to believe that this formal notion has any explanatory value as cause.
conjunction. . .. fails to access. In analyzing these recall protocols Steffensen found that causal and adversative cohesive elements were recalled better by readers from the passage of their own native culture than from the passage of the foreign culture. underlying the text. In other topic condition (a theme). Freebody and Anderson speculate on the reason for this nonsignificant effect of cohesion by observing: “There previous research.
Freebody and Anderson (1981) have empirically studied the effects of three different levels of cohesion on readers’ comprehension of written passages.” (1981:19) Steffensen (1981) has studied the interactive effects of both cohesive ties and cultural background knowledge on readers’ processing of short prose texts. and lexical cohesion include a large proportion of any text. not positive. such as that of Hagerup-Neilsen (1977). Vocabulary difficulty had a dramatic effect on comprehension. correlation of cohesion and coherence ranking. Steffensen argues that textual cohesion represents only a potential which fully realized only a potential which can be fully realized when a reader appropriately identifies the schema underlying a text. In other words. These findings suggest that when there is a mismatch in cultural background knowledge between the reader and that assumed by the text. There appears to be no causal relationship between proportional measures of cohesive ties and coherence rankings within a topic he resent study indicates that a cohesion index is causally unrelated to a text's coherence. there was a strong negative correlation. . all the cohesive ties in the world won’t help that text cohere for that reader. 4 but the amount of cohesion did not. If a a reader does not have.Cohesion is Not Coherence
Cohesion Is Not Coherence
topic or content appears to affect the options a writer has for using cohesive items. Such pervasiveness severely diminishes the usefulness of the cohesion concept as an index of coherence. What was found is that cohesive ties are pervasive in text and are patterned across topics. In one of the topic conditions (a biography). or
. which indicates that lack of connectives does not seriously damage comprehension because readers are usually able to make bridging inferences. This study argues against using cohesion analysis as an index or predictor of a text’s coherence. Implications for Second Language/ESL The purpose of this paper in reviewing cohesion theory and schema-theo recognizing that a text is about an example of a class of situations makes possible the complete processing of the cohesive elements in that text. there was a moderate negative. Tierney and Mosenthal conclude that: With the analyses that have been done with counts of types of cohesion ties ‘little positive has been stated about the causal relation of Halliday and Hasan s cohesion concept to textual coherence. . . But tics are pervasive almost by definition since reference. readers were asked to write their recalls of the passages. there will be a loss of textual cohesion. After reading comparable passages from both their native culture and from a foreign culture. the study also simultaneously looked at the effects of vocabulary difficulty.
according to Goodin and Perkins. Interest in cohesion theory among second language. in the literature. only cohesive. rhetorical composition is preeminently the arrangement and sequencing of sentences. need instruction in the resources of the English language for creating cohesion. something like the cohesive bonding together of sentences. as well as to other text analysis techniques. something that can he revealed by textual analysis techniques such as cohesion theory. particularly in ESL. I’m not claiming that there is nothing worthwhile about cohesion studies. not to expect cohesion theory to be the ultimate solution to ESL reading/writing problems at the level of the text. their writing will be more coherent. It’s just a short jump from that view to the view that if we could only teach cohesion to our ESL students they’d write coherent. determine a text’s coherence.. that is. The schema-theoretical criticism of cohesion theory cited in this paper has.. not of necessity. Thus.
. . What
..” (1982:57) In other words. hopefully. if anything. and the art of coherence. And finally. A coherent text will likely be cohesive. Consider the following quote from Goodin and Perkins: . the view expressed by these quotes is that coherence is caused by something in the text. However. more and more references are made to it. They seem to believe that coherence is located in the text and can be defined as the result of specific textual features. Further these authors appear to view coherence as something within a text. these authors appear to be committing the errors pointed out by Morgan and Sellner. and. . These authors appear encouraged to believe that cohesion theory. composition (1981) laments that “the cohesive resources of the language not readily available to the non-native writer” (1981: from the abstract) and further that "Many ESL students. . will yield the answers to ESL composition problems. in fact. forms much of the art of rhetoric. I’m also not saying that we shouldn't teach our ESL students the cohesive ties available in English.. equating coherence with cohesion. incoherent text together won’t make it coherent. I believe they need to be done.
like cohesion. ESL teachers and researchers is growing. particularly in the literature dealing with teaching ESL composition (Menke 1981.” (1981:3) In other words. it’s the effect of coherence. these authors appear to be making the assumptions Halliday and Hasan made. They seem to be assuming that the features of a text which. they seem to believe that if we teach cohesion to our ESL students. shown that these assumptions are false. Carpenter and Hunter 1982). as well as other textual analysis techniques. Goodin and Perkins 1982. Consider yet another quote from Goodin and Perkins: we began to investigate coherence in the light of modern discourse analysis (1982:57). may be subjected to textual analysis techniques.Cohesion is Not Coherence
retical criticism of it has been to caution those in second language teaching and research.. or at least more coherent. or bonding those sentences together. coherence is the bonding together of sentences. Cohesion is not the cause of coherence.
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