3. Paragraph Coherence
An important quality in any good text, especially essays, is coherence. The coherence of a text means how well its parts – its words, sentences and paragraphs – work together and contribute to the text as a whole. An incoherent text is one that lacks unity.
When we looked at paragraphs, we drew attention to the importance of the topic sentence as a way of focussing attention on one main idea for each paragraph. We also said the function of the other sentences was to support the topic sentence by explaining, defining or giving examples of the point expressed there. Following this advice is an important step towards coherent essays. But there is more to it than that.
As we have seen, a well-structured essay gains from being visually structured too – in clear paragraphs. In the same way, the coherence of a paragraph needs to be reflected in the language it uses. The reader, after all, is not a mind-reader, so the job of the writer is to give him clear signals about what is to come and how it relates to what has already been said. Reading a good text should be a smooth ride, not a bumpy one. There are a number of ways in which you can achieve coherence in a text.
Repeating key words or phrases
Repeating the word or phrase that is the theme of your essay, or the topic of your paragraph, is a way of keeping the text focussed:
For a politician power is the name of the game. The power to be heard, the power to decide and, ultimately, the power to shape events. Without power, what use are policies? A politician without power is like a yachtsman with no wind – becalmed, bemused, going nowhere..
Obviously you don’t want to exaggerate repetition. Too much of it makes a text boring or irritating. Another way in which we create cohesion is by avoiding the repetition of nouns, noun phrases or names and using pronouns instead. In speech we do this without thinking, but in writing we have to be sure that it is clear what the pronoun is referring to:
Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.
(From an instruction book for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942)
This paragraph works, in spite of the fact that “they” in the second sentence doesn’t actually have a clear reference in the first sentence. From the context we understand that “they” – and later “these people” – are “the British”. In the following paragraph the connection is less clear:
New Labour was a reaction to old socialist ideology that had dominated the party for decades. They wanted to broaden the party’s appeal by moving its politics to the centre.
Here it would better if they was replaced by a noun phrase: Its supporters or Tony Blair and his supporters, for example.
Parallelism is a sort of repetition, only here it is not names or nouns that are repeated, but grammatical structures. Parallelism makes a text easier to read, and by making sentences similar in structure it helps to emphasise connections in content:
With Labour’s victory in 1997 the Conservative Party was doomed to a decade of wandering in the political wilderness. Their voters had deserted them, their policies had been stolen and their credibility as a party of government had been lost. The more they searched for new policies – and the more they changed their leadership – the less confidence they inspired.
Parallelisms of this sort help to bind a text together without the reader even noticing it. If we take them a step further, parallelisms become more typical of persuasive texts. It is no coincidence that some of the great speechmakers have found them an effective way of moving an audience. This is an excerpt from one of Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speeches in the House of Commons:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
Faulty parallelism makes a text seem rather inelegant and amateurish. The following sentences are grammatically correct, but there is faulty parallelism in each of them:
Now see the difference when we correct the parallelisms:
Transitional words and phrases
These are words and phrases that can be added to a text to make it clear how the sentences are related to each other. They can be compared to traffic signs for motorists; they tell us what to expect on the next stretch of road – or text. If we removed all the road signs, experienced drivers would still find their way around, but traffic flow would slow down and there would be misunderstandings. It is the same with a text:
It is now nearly two decades since Margaret Thatcher left office. Her legacy is still felt in British politics. The Conservatives have not been in power since 1997. Many of her policies live on under New Labour. Some people see Tony Blair as having built his New Labour policies on her successes.
The content of this paragraph is fine – it has some sensible things to say. But I think you will agree that it is a little difficult to see how the sentences relate to each other. If we add a few transitional words and phrases, as well as joining some of the sentences together, we get a clearer, more readable text:
Although it is now nearly two decades since Margaret Thatcher left office, her legacy is still felt in British politics. While the Conservative Party has not been in power since 1997, many of her policies live on under New Labour. Indeed, people see Tony Blair as having built his New Labour policies on her successes.
Below is a list of some of the more common transitional words and phrases, grouped according to their function. But a word of warning here: Don’t overdo it! Too many transitional words and phrases become tiresome and confusing – just as too many road signs do. But it is useful to be aware of them so that you can use them when necessary.
1) Combine the following sentences using suitable transitional words or phrases.
2) Read the paragraphs below carefully. Then sit in pairs or threes and discuss what you think is the topic sentence in each of them and how you think they could be improved without changing the content. Then, working individually, rewrite them using the changes you discussed.