Let’s start with an example.
Two dogs bit a 77-year-old man yesterday on East Street. The victim sustained only minor injuries but was taken to hospital for tests. The animals were taken away by police, who are currently trying to track down their owner.from an imaginary newspaper
a. Lexical Cohesion
Notice the word tests in sentence 2. This is a word with a lot of different meanings (exams? chemical tests?), but it’s clear here that it’s medical tests, because we’ve already got injuries and hospital in the same sentence. This vocabulary theme is an example of lexical cohesion.
Meanwhile, to avoid repetition, Two dogs in sentence 1 becomes The animals in sentence 3. Synonyms are very common in most types of text in English. So, in an essay question, a new law can also be called the proposed legislation or this change or the government’s approach or this issue. These are not exactly synonyms, but alternative descriptions that you can use to make your writing more varied.
If you’re doing the TOEFL, you’ll also be writing about a professor giving a lecture, so prepare and learn some alternatives to the professor says (for example, the lecturer points out, the speaker mentions, the arguments in the lecture focused on… and so on).
b. Reference and Pronouns
In sentence 3, the pronoun who refers back to police. This is a relative clause, and a clear example of a very common technique of cohesion: referring back to something earlier in the text.
But wait! What about their (also in sentence 3). Who are ‘they’? If we go backwards from this point in the sentence, the first possibility is that they are the police! But… the police are trying to track down the police’s owner? That’s nonsense!
You probably realised when reading this sentence that their owner refers to the dogs’ owner. Once we make the lexical connection of owner and dog, the sentence does make sense. Therefore, it’s a coherent sentence, but it fails on cohesion because of the bad pronoun placement. It’s ugly to read, and some readers may need to read it twice to understand the true meaning.
Be very careful with pronouns! If you write a sentence like “It is a very important question, and one which deserves more explanation”, make sure that your readers are easily able to find the thing that is it, in the previous sentence, and make sure this thing is a singular noun.
You probably know some of these already! A lot of students love to begin every sentence with adverbials like “furthermore”, “overall”, and “in summary”. These aren’t wrong, and if you use them correctly they can help to make your paragraphs more cohesive. All I’ll say here is that many many students:
- overuse linkers
- misuse linkers (like writing “By the way” when they mean “On the other hand”)
- put linkers at the beginning of every sentence so that their writing becomes repetitive.
Therefore, these types of phrases are not a magic formula to get you a higher grade on the writing test, and there are more powerful ways to make your writing cohesive.
You can find a more academic explanation of coherence and cohesion at the Cambridge University site.
A fuller list of cohesion techniques is at the English UK site.
You can find a good activity here to increase your awareness of cohesive techniques.