Coherence and cohesion
In systemic functional linguistics (SFL) and in discourse analysis, there exist two notions, which are sometimes confused: coherence and cohesion. In this post I would like to clarify any potential confusion by defining the terms and by providing examples.
Coherence (from Lat. “cohaerere” – to stick together) can be understood in a wide sense and in a narrow sense. In a wide sense, coherence is the semantic structure which helps to unite several sentences into a holistic text. In a narrow sense, coherence is the connection brought about by reader’s/listener’s knowledge that helps him/her to understand any given discourse (e.g. through the knowledge of the context in which the discourse is unfolding). Coherence has to do with mental processes and cultural knowledge rather than any explicit discourse markers such as deictic words or linking words (Bussmann, 1998).
Tom: May I have some more?
Helen: Yes, of course, any time you want more, just go ahead.
In this example, Tom does not mention what exactly he wants, but through the context of the situation Helen knows that he is speaking about perogies (Tom has just finished a plate of perogies). Thus, despite the fact that Tom is not mentioning explicitly what he wants, his discourse is coherent as is Helen’s (who is not mentioning perogies either).
[A newspaper article headline and a lead to it] A NEW AMAZING RECORD SET. Solomon University students have cooked the biggest perogi. A whole weekend has been spent in hard work.
Similarly, in example 2, there are no textual indicators pointing at the relationships between the sentences. However, it is still easy to understand the text based on the semantics and logical order in which the sentences are organized. Therefore, this text is coherent.
Cohesion “is the connection that results when the interpretation of a textual element is dependent on another element in the text. […] Cohesion refers to the connection that exists between elements in the text” (Renkema, 2004, p. 49).
“Cohesion is produced by (a) the repetition of elements of the text, e.g. recurrence, textphoric, paraphrase, parallelism; (b) the compacting of text through the use of devices such as ellipsis; (c) the use of morphological and syntactic devices to express different kinds of relationships such as connection, tense, aspect, deixis,or theme-rheme relationships” (Bussmann, 1998, p. 199).
James likes yellow apples. He eats them every day.
In example 3, the interpretation of “he” depends on another element in the text (i.e. “James”). Similarly, the interpretation of “them” depends on “yellow apples”. In this case, cohesion is achieved by the use of personal pronouns “he” and “them”.
Ann is not going to Ukraine soon. Ann has just returned from there.
In example 4, cohesion is achieved through the use of the deictic word “there” which relies on another element of the text, the noun “Ukraine”.
The important difference between coherence and cohesion is that coherence relies on semantics of a given text as well as cultural knowledge and the overall context in which discourse is unfolding. There is no explicit manifestation of textual coherence in a text itself. Coherence is rather deduced from a text.
Cohesion, in turn, starts with concrete textual elements which are then built upon to produce the effect of cohesion. Cohesion is often manifested through the use of such “devices” as pronouns (e.g. I, he, she, it) and deictic words (e.g. here, there, then).
I hope that these definitions and the examples will help to understand better the notions of coherence and cohesion.
Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.
Renkema, J. J. (2004). Introduction to Discourse Studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.