Definition of the terms Cohesion and Coherence

Cohesion refers to the many ways (grammatical, lexical, semantic, metrical, alliterative) in which the elements of a text are linked together. Cohesion differs from coherence in that a text can be internally cohesive but be incoherent – that is, make no sense. Here is a text that is grammatically and lexically cohesive, but not very coherent:

An octopus is an air-filled curtain with seven heads and three spike-filled fingers, which poke in frills and furls at ribbon-strewed buttons.

Grammatical cohesion:

The clause-structure obeys normal English grammatical rules (which is itself a form of cohesion):

clause-structure clause-structure

Anaphoric reference:

which poke refers back to the fingers

Lexical cohesion - semantic fields:

heads, fingers (body parts)

curtain, frills, furls, ribbons, buttons (haberdashery)

However the text only makes sense if we invent some kind of other-world context. Notice how our tendency is to want to make sense of it, to find some kind of science-fictional or poetical circumstance whereby it could make sense.


By contrast, texts can be coherent when not cohesive:

Speaker 1: “Chocolate biscuits!”

Speaker 2: “Me! Me!”

Speaker 3: “Uh uh. Lent.”

Readers who know that people give up things like chocolate for Lent can infer that Speaker 3 is refusing the biscuit on offer whilst Speaker 2 is enthusiastically asking for one. But nothing grammatical or lexical groups chocolate biscuits with me with Lent, rather it is the reader’s real-world (or exophoric) knowledge that enables interpretation.

Cohesion is objectively identifiable; coherence is far more subjective, depending on the reader/listener’s interpretation.

Demonstration of Cohesion in action

Consider the cohesion and coherence in the following dialogue:

1.‘I’m thinking of getting married,’ Matthew said.

2.‘Oh, are you? Who to?’

3.‘I haven’t anyone in mind,’ Matthew said. ‘Only my brother-in-law thinks I should get married. My sister wants me to get married and so does my uncle. Every time I go home to Ireland my mother’s ashamed that I’m not married to a girl.’

4.‘I got a young woman into trouble at the age of eighteen,’ Walter said. ‘Daughter of one of our footmen. He was an Irish fellow. The butler caught him reading Nietzsche in the pantry. To the detriment of the silver. Of course there was no question of my marrying his daughter. The family made a settlement and I went abroad to paint. My hair turned white at the age of nineteen.’

5.Matthew said, ‘I know a girl who’s expecting a baby by an old spiritualist. She’s lovely. She’s got long black hair.’ He saddened into silence and gazed upon the girl in jeans dispassionately, recognizing her as Ronald’s former girl-friend.

6.‘I went abroad to paint, but my cousin the Marquise –’

7.‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Matthew said, ‘there’s no justification for being a bachelor and that’s the truth, let’s face it. It’s everyone’s duty to be fruitful and multiply according to his calling either spiritual or temporal, as the case may be.’

8.‘Monet admired my work. Just before he died he visited my studio with his friends, and –’

9.‘These are the figures,’ Matthew said, and took from inside his coat a bundle of papers from which he selected one which had been folded in four, and which was split and grubby at the folds. He straightened out the sheet, following the typewritten lines with his finger, as he read out, ‘Greater London, the census of 1951. Unmarried males of twenty-one and over: six hundred and fifty-nine thousand five hundred. That’s including divorced and widowed, of course, but the majority are bachelors –’

10.‘I can see him now,’ said Walter, ‘as he was when he was assisted into a chair before my easel. Monet was silent for fully ten minutes – the painting was a simple, but rather exquisite roof-top scene –’

11.‘Unmarried males of thirty and over,’ said Matthew: ‘three hundred and fifty-eight thousand one hundred. Since 1951 the bachelor population has increased by –’

12.‘Put that vulgar little bit of paper away,’ Walter said.

Analysis of lexical cohesion

Matthew begins with an observation about marriage. Walter answers anaphorically in paragraph 2. In paragraph 3 Matthew continues the cohesion by repeating the lexeme marriage. (A lexeme encompasses all the derived forms, so the lexeme marriage contains marry, married, marrying, marriageable, etc.) In paragraph 4, Walter uses the euphemism got a young woman into trouble for ‘got pregnant’, which is in the same semantic field as marriage (in the wider context of the novel, it will transpire that Walter is a fantasist), and goes on to link this to the lexeme paint. Matthew provides cohesion with marriage with expecting a baby in paragraph 5. In paragraph 6 Matthew and Walter begin to diverge: Walter continues with the lexeme paint. In paragraph 7 Matthew continues with pregnancy in be fruitful and multiply. In paragraph 8, Walter is cohesive with paragraphs 4 and 6 with the words Monet and studio. In paragraph 9, Matthew is cohesive with paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, with the lexemes unmarried, divorced, widowed, bachelors. In paragraph 10 Walter ignores this and continues with his own cohesion with paragraphs 4, 6, and 8 with the lexemes him (referring anaphorically to Monet), easel, Monet, painting, scene. In paragraph 11, Matthew continues with lexemes unmarried, bachelor, and in paragraph 12 Walter finally returns to Matthew with the word paper, referring anaphorically back to the census of paragraph 9. At no point does Matthew enter into Walter’s reverie about having been an aristocratic painter. There are some more local lexical cohesions: the repetition of hair in paragraphs 4 and 5; footmen, butler, pantry, silver, Marquise and family, cousin in 4 and 6; the number sequences in paragraphs 9 and 11.

Both Matthew and Walter are preoccupied with their own concerns and only pay half attention to the other. Their individual texts are cohesive, but their joint discourse in the sequence paragraphs 6-11 is not. These characters are interacting, but not fully.

Literary Exercise

The following dialogue is extracted from Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls. Churchill uses the following notation system:

when one character starts speaking before the other has finished, the point of interruption is marked /

when a speech follows on from a speech earlier than the one immediately before it, continuity is marked *

Read the following dialogue, looking out for various kinds of cohesion.

[They laugh. They look at menus.]


ISABELLA Yes, I forgot all my Latin. But my father was the mainspring of my life and when he died I was so grieved. I’ll have the chicken, please, / and the soup.


NIJO Of course you were grieved. My father was saying his prayers and he dozed off in the sun. So I touched his knee to rouse him. ‘I wonder what will happen,’ he said, and then he was dead before he finished the sentence. / If he’d died saying


MARLENE What a shock.


NIJO his prayers he would have gone straight to heaven. / Waldorf salad.


JOAN Death is the return of all creatures to God.


NIJO I shouldn’t have woken him.


JOAN Damnation only means ignorance of the truth. I was always attracted by the teachings of John the Scot, though he was inclined to confuse / God and the world.


ISABELLA Grief always overwhelmed me at the time.


MARLENE What I fancy is a rare steak. Gret?


ISABELLA I am of course a member of the / Church of England*


GRET Potatoes.


MARLENE *I haven’t been to church for years. / I like Christmas carols.


ISABELLA Good works matter more than church attendance.


MARLENE Make that two steaks and a lot of potatoes. Rare. But I don’t do good works either.


JOAN Canelloni, please, / and a salad.


ISABELLA Well, I tried, but oh dear. Hennie did good works.


NIJO The first half of my life was all sin and the second / all repentance*


MARLENE Oh what about starters?


GRET Soup.


JOAN *And which did you like best?


MARLENE Were your travels just a penance? Avocado vinaigrette. Didn’t you / enjoy yourself?


JOAN Nothing to start with for me, thank you.


NIJO Yes, but I was very unhappy. / It hurt to remember


MARLENE And the wine list.


NIJO the past. I think that was repentance.

Comment on cohesion in the dialogue, and its effect. Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


It is relatively easy, in this extract, to pick out the lexical cohesion – and the author has helped by making it explicit via her notation system. Two discourses run parallel, one about the ordering of a meal, and one about death, religion and sin. The characters Isabella, Nijo, Joan and Marlene all talk cohesively about these subjects but notice that they almost always use the pronouns I/me. Gret only participates in the ordering of the meal. In particular, there are local cohesions at:

lines 1, 2, 5, 8: grieved, grief, dead, died, death
lines 2 and 3: he was dead before he finished the sentence and the anaphoric What a shock (that he was dead before he finished the sentence)
lines 7, 10, 12: God, Church of England, Christmas carols
lines 12, 13: haven’t been to church, church attendance
lines 13, 14, 16: good works, and the anaphoric I tried (to do good works)
lines 17, 21, 25: sin, penance, repentance

There are other types of cohesion. There is the British politeness convention when ordering a meal, with its pleases and thankyous (“I’ll have the chicken, please”, “Canelloni, please”, “Nothing to start with for me, thank you”). There are discourse markers [discourse markers, usually words or short phrases, are linking devices which indicate the speaker’s attitude or shift topic]: “Of course you were grieved.”, “Well, I tried, but oh dear.”, “Oh what about starters?”, “And which did you like best?”

Cohesion is objectively identifiable. However it is less easy to determine the effect, particularly the running of more than one dialogue at once, which makes interpretation demanding for the audience, who are bound to miss some of the dialogue. Do we regard Joan’s preoccupation with God and sin as a social deficiency (she does not offer sympathy to the bereaved Isabella and Nijo), or as evidence of her religious character, or both? Are the overlaps a sign of an exuberant group of people anticipating the ends of each others’ turns and enthusiastically leaping in with their own contribution, or are they indicative of inattention and social isolation? Ivanchenko (2007) points out that there is no interruption here, the discourse does not become hostile, it remains cohesive with no disjuncts, and so a relatively harmonious interpretation of joint collaboration seems preferable – but some directors have read hostility into the lines at this point.


Ivanchenko, Andriy. 2007. An 'interactive' approach to interpreting overlapping dialogue in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (Act 1). Language and Literature 2007 16(1), 74-89.

This article is is available at SAGE journals , sign in with your Raven password.

Kent Youth Theatre’s production of Top Girls.

Here is an amateur production of Top Girls; the stretch of dialogue occurs at 6.58-8.20.

Teaching Point

Dialogue is a staple of literature, but it is unlike real speech and has evolved stage conventions of its own, including discrete turn-taking. There need not be cohesion (although there usually is), but the audience has to be able to interpret the dialogue coherently, if it is to function as such.