Can lexical cohesion improve academic writing?
This is the first of three lessons about Cohesive Devices. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of cohesion and coherence
– Explore the four lexical categories that improve cohesion
– Study extensive examples that demonstrate cohesion
While grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, content and claims are all very important when writing academic assignments such as essays, if your text lacks coherence then your reader will be unable to successfully receive your message. In a university setting, poor coherence will most likely result in a less convincing argument and lower grades.
In this short course on cohesive devices, we focus on how students can improve their written coherence through the use of eight cohesive strategies and various cohesive words and phrases – particularly conjunctions. In Lessons 1 and 2, we explore the four types of lexical and grammatical cohesion that in combination greatly benefit academic discourse and argumentation. Then, in Lesson 3, we offer a list of the most helpful cohesive devices, grouped into twelve key functions. Good luck studying – after reading through each lesson, consider unlocking and completing our worksheets to check your comprehension and improve your English ability.
What is cohesion?
Cohesion is a subcategory of coherence, but where coherence is generally more focussed on the ‘macro’ level, looking at how well-crafted thesis statements, topic sentences and summary sentences help guide a reader through an argument, cohesion is more ‘micro’, paying attention to vocabulary and grammar. In truth, there is no one way of achieving cohesion. A cohesive piece of writing will be formed using a variety of different lexical and grammatical strategies, including repetition, substitution and the use of semantic fields. When combined in an academic setting, these strategies help to form a cohesive text that:
- flows easily
- is well structured
- follows a logical pattern
- has well-connected ideas
- has a clear theme and argument
- guides the reader through the key ideas
What are the eight cohesive strategies?
In this short course, we will discuss eight strategies that students should be considerate of if they wish to improve their written cohesion. These strategies can be divided into lexical and grammatical categories:
Strategy 1: Reference
One of the most common methods of improving cohesion is to use special words (usually determiners) to first introduce an idea or object and then later refer to that same item again. Such words commonly include:
- articles: a / an / the
- demonstratives: this / that / these / those / such
- quantifiers: all / any / many / most / some
To see this reference strategy in action, take a look at the example below. Here we can see how the article ‘a’ introduces a new object (a beaker), how ‘the’ refers to that object once known, how the demonstrative ‘such’ qualifies this object’s type, and how ‘this’ works to further emphasise and identify that object:
In academic writing, demonstratives are in fact very useful for generating cohesion, making a text much more dynamic and engaging. This can be seen in the two paragraphs below. Paragraph (A) is without demonstratives such as ‘this’ and ‘these’, while paragraph (B) uses colour coding to highlight lexical connections:
Strategy 2: Substitution
Similar to reference, but used much less commonly in academic writing, is substitution. This is when one expression is used to replace another to limit repetition. Though substitution is naturally most common with pronouns such as ‘it’, ‘she’, ‘one’ or ‘which’, words and phrases such as ‘so’ and ‘the same’ are also common, as are the auxiliary verbs ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘have’:
Strategy 3: Collocation
This type of lexical cohesion is less obvious, particularly to non-native speakers of English. Improving cohesion through collocation involves having an intimate knowledge of the language and of which words ‘go together’. In short, collocation is when words appear together with such a high frequency that it would be strange to a native speaker to use an alternative word as a replacement. When matching verbs with nouns for example, we say ‘do business’ and ‘make a difference’ rather than ‘make business’ and ‘do a difference’. Likewise, we ‘acquire knowledge’ and ‘learn collaboratively’ rather than ‘learn knowledge’ and ‘acquire collaboratively’. Such collocation can also be seen in the noun phrases below:
- global heating X worldly warming X global warming ✔
- observable evidence X empirical documentation X empirical evidence ✔
- money reform X economic change X economic reform ✔
Using correct collocations doesn’t necessarily improve cohesion, but using incorrect collocations will certainly reduce coherence in your text.
Strategy 4: Semantic Fields
The final type of lexical cohesion is found in the use of semantic fields. By including vocabulary items in your writing that share semantic features and that are perhaps expressive of synonymy (similarity), antonymy (oppositeness) or polysemy (root meaning), your writing should be more cohesive, coherent and convincing. Notice how the six semantic fields in the excerpt below combine and overlap:
Good work on completing this first lesson in our course on cohesive devices. Now that we’ve discussed the four types of lexical cohesion available to a writer, continue reading to learn about how grammatical cohesion is also of key importance.
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