700 words on… why we talk the way we do

Interested in why we talk and write the way we do? Then linguistics may be of interest to you...

The missing link to what makes a text understandable is cohesion.

When studying at university, lecturers and fellow students go on and on about doing ‘reading’ but have you ever stopped to wonder what it is that makes a text understandable and comprehensible? It’s great that from a young age we can understand what we read but if you think writing a cohesive piece of text is putting a load of words in the right order than you’ve only just touched the surface! When writing, we can’t just write down what we’d say, as T.S. Eliot points out: “an identical spoken and written language would be practically intolerable; if we spoke as we write, we should find no-one to listen; and if we wrote as we speak, we should find no-one to read.”1

The missing link to what makes a text understandable is…cohesion. Defined by Halliday and Hasan as “the ways in which the surface text, i.e. the actual words, are mutually connected within a sentence,”2 cohesion is the underlying connection to making a text make sense, and comes in four ways: reference, substitution, ellipsis and conjunction. Of course, you’re probably like me and had didn’t know it existed before reading this article; I discovered it in a discourse analysis lecture as part of my French and Linguistics course at university.

So what are these four magical cohesion components and how do they connect a text?

Reference is the umbrella term which covers personal, demonstrative and comparative and they all contribute to cohesion. Personal reference is the use of pronouns to avoid repetition of the subject to show possession, e.g. ‘if Peter hadn’t missed Peter’s bus, Peter’s dad wouldn’t have picked Peter up’ is quite annoying and strange to read but we can make it cohesive by putting in some personal reference, such as: ‘‘if Peter hadn’t missed his bus, his dad wouldn’t have picked him up.’

‘This way, that way’ are examples of demonstrative reference to highlight the specific things you’re talking about. This makes the object of the sentence a reference point and determines exactly what you’re talking about so the reader doesn’t get lost or confused. Combine this with comparative reference (conveying how components relate to each other in positive and negative aspects) and you’re a quarter of the way towards making a text cohesive.

Before the Text and Cohesion lecture I thought substitution was just a sports term but it’s also a component that contributes to cohesion. Nominal substitution replaces the word with ‘one’ or ‘ones.’ For example, ‘Jane hated Mondays. She hated this one so much she just wanted to go home.’ In English we use ‘do’ in peculiar ways which learners of English find hard to grasp (you go into more detail on that during a TEFL module) and one of the cases where this happens is in verbal substitution as ‘do’ replaces the lexical verb in the group and makes the sentence make better sense. For example, ‘they all started dancing, so I did too’ is much better than saying ‘they all started dancing so I started dancing too.’ Clausal substitution is the handy device to reply to a whole clause without repeating it and uses ‘so’ and ‘not.’ Have you found this article interesting up till now? I thought so!

Ellipsis also comes in nominal, verbal and clausal forms. This element of cohesion omits pieces of information that don’t need to be repeated and is typically used in questions. For example:
Mum: Where are you going?
Jack: To town.
Jack didn’t need to reply ‘I’m going to town’ as that was understood from the mother’s question so we’re still able to make sense of it and know what Jack was answering even though he only replied with two words.

Conjunction is the fourth component to making a text cohesive and has four forms; additive – and, or, furthermore, adversative – but, however, causal – so, consequently and temporal – then, after that. Conjunction links sentences and the text together to make it flow better and allows for easier comprehension.

So, when these four elements come together they produce lexical cohesion and enable us to understand what we read and to interpret a meaning. Of course, some writers like to make it more difficult than others, but the cohesion is still there. Chances are you’ve spotted it all the way through this article now you know what it is!

If you’re interested in why we use our language the way we do and what elements constitute making something cohesive and understandable, or just wonder why we talk and write the way we do, then you may be interested in Linguistics, specifically sociolinguistics and discourse analysis.

1. T.S. Eliot

2. M.A.K. Halliday & R.Hasan, Cohesion in English (London: Longman: 1976) p5