Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Definition of Cohesion Markers

Towards a Definition of Transition Words in the English Language

Consider this definition taken from the definition of "coherence" given in NTC's Literary Dictionary.

Cohesion markers make possible a logical, clear, sequential, cohesive whole in the English language so that readers can follow the rhetorical or discourse arrangement from one idea to the next without difficulty.

What are cohesion markers in the English language? In a general sense, they are important words and phrases that signal the underlying flow of thought. They organize a composition by signaling the type, purpose, direction, and pace of upcoming ideas (and, rarely, labelling preceding ones). In so doing, they keep the reader's mind 'on track' as regards the specific purpose or plan of the writer.

In this role, cohesion markers have been called 'signpost' words. Whenever a person reads an English composition, these markers provide the same function as do road signs for navigating and steering down roadways. They provide signals to our senses, mental awareness, and reading skills resources that outline upcoming steps and reassure readers about recent, preceding steps we've taken to navigate through text. They are explicit helps from the writer to the reader in this sense.

In writing as distinct from driving on the road, cohesion markers are part of the actual structure of the roadway. In this sense, they can be likened to more than just signs. That is, they can be implicit steps, too. They can help a reader arrive at higher level interpretations, drawing his or her own interpolations about the usefulness, appropriateness, authoritativeness, and objectivity of text. In this role, they can act as highway ramps which take us conveniently to higher, lower, or adjacent ideas while keeping us confident along the way, or bridges which carry us between important points we decide to consider as we view the writer's chosen landscape and scenery. Whether used as explicit or implicit signals by readers, cohesion markers are like parking elevators that temporary move attention to ever increasing or sequential levels of ideas and inferences. Of course, these are just general observations about the possible functions and utility of cohesion markers as used in written discourse.

In this blog entry, I will consider cohesion markers as either explicit or implicit markers of text. They will be treated as hints intended by writers to 'grab' readers and simply turn their heads into broad frames of reference or general directions where text is to about to go. They also will be likened to reading cues that prompt and preset our selection of task-appropriate reading skills. In this more reader-subjective role, they will be seen as clues that subtly announce the styles and approaches in reading needed for perusing and comprehending the connections between prior ideas and upcoming text. They help turn text into properly organized groups of ideas. In addition, they will be seen as less directive and more suggestive at times, i.e., imprecise markers which are placed in text to assist readers in making their personally relevant decisions and subjective determinations about styles of reading to use with text.

Cohesion markers don't only help readers. They help writers, too. Writers can steer the expectations of readers through the velvet-glove nicety of a nongraphic approach involving processes such as introductory labelling, preliminary comments, and logical links that are far more suggestive than they would seem, since they are often quite imprecise. That's why I call them hints and not headings.

Like most words and phrases in the English, cohesion markers have both a semantic (content meaning) component to them and a grammatical (syntactic) one. They herald content development and the author's explicit and implicit reasoning. Usually, however, one of these two is more prominent in the writer's mind or significant to the reader at any one place in text. For purposes of reasoning, they can be useful either as content (semantic/topic) markers or as grammatical (syntactic/flow) markers. A change in content can announce a change in the author's approach. This contrasts their predominant purpose in writing where cohesion markers help organize the ocnstruction of groups of sentences, put order and hierarchy into paragraph structure, and, as a result, organize the structure of the text itself. By virtue of their being lexical and thematic words which can link both ideas and the flow of thought in English, they could also be called the transitional devices or phrase markers used to assist a reader or listener make a coherent interpretation, follow the development of ideas, understand the intent of arguments in passages or particular lines of text.

In sum, cohesion markers guide the flow of thought by providing hints, warnings, and grounds for making decisions about reading approach, reasoning, logic, and evaluation of text. In general, they guide writer idea flow and reader idea formulation. Thus, in reading as well as writing, they serve as mental directors and controllers of idea traffic flow.

In spoken discourse, cohesion markers are used less than in written discourse. This is true whenever speech is more informal than written discourse. English writing tends to be more formal than speech (though not in e-mail). Nevertheless, cohesion markers supply the complex function of mentally directing listeners by pre-positioning their listening resources. These are people who are attempting to follow and interpret the progress of a speaker's thoughts and viewpoint. When speech is casual or informal, cohesion markers appear less frequently. In addition, they tend to appear in shorter forms as compared to their formal equivalents used in written text.

Cohesion markers could just as well be called global (superparagraph as opposed to sentence) coherence markers, because they connect ideas larger than parts of speech do. Cohesion markers are different from parts of speech in that they connect larger topics and ideas than can be conveyed in sentences and clauses alone, and sometimes, even in paragraphs. In fact, they show the interrelations between ideas presented in the use of sentences, clauses, and paragraphs. They do not generally guide and report the flow of logic or meaning within one sentence; far more often, they guide it between groups of sentences. As such, they cannot really be called parts of speech because they do not signal the development of content at the most basic level. Rather they work above the sentence level; interfacing ideas that maintain more continuity and time of development than in one sentence. They label content changes (i.e., subject and topic changes), content continuence (subject/topic continuity, paraphrases, and repetitions), content themes (main ideas, major points, etc.), content streams (idea progression and development), author opinions and determinations (relative weight, order, function, importance, and value), and the direction and purpose of idea flow in and between paragraphs. In addition, they signal and announce introductions, continuation of thoughts, alterations, alternatives, additions, comparisons, and any other types of movement in ideas, themes, and views that need announcement.

When single-word transition words are used at the sentence level, i.e., for sentence-level idea management, they are called parts of speech. These are the connectives (conjunctions, prepositions, adverbs, and relative pronouns) and pronouns (she, their, us, mine, I, ours) of English sentences. Also included in this function are synonyms and the processes called paraphrase, restatement, and reference. Transition words for sentences are the kinds of parts of speech that can signal connections, interrelations, repetitions, and directions for change in content of a sentence. In contrast to cohesion markers, parts of speech need no comparison to adjacent sentences or other sections of a paragraph in order to obtain their fundamental purpose or meaning.

Speakers of English often say that English words have individual meaning, but in a sentence, this is not always true. Some words appear to be used merely to help the sentences flow smoothly or to fit a standard, logical pattern. One well-written sentence alone usually cannot supply an idea along with its defense. So the use of an organized group of ideas at a higher level are needed in English. For instance, supportative arguments, definitions, comparisons, summaries, and examples are also needed to introduce, explain, show, and make exciting new information and ideas.

Let's look further into the function of individual words. Unless they contribute to discourse so much that they are worthy of being turned into a heading or title, individual words have a fleeting life and a limited contribution to make to English text. Their use and function are typically limited to only one sentence or even less. Contrary to prevailing opinion, individual words per se are not the building blocks of ideas; the logical connections between words, thus phrases and clauses, are.

Words are no more than what we might call the raw materials for making assertions, premises, facts, definitions, etc. They don't function at the level of idea construction. Ideas are at least two steps above words in accomplishing this task, not one. Ideas are something more refined and more significant than phrases, clauses, and even sentences. They are typically expressed through the use of clusters of clauses and therefore cannot be found sufficiently represented in whole within any one sentence. This may be why the English language displays a propensity for great variety. English has displayed a traditional distaste for the repetition of all but the most semantically important or emotional words used in idea development. Instead of using the simple repetition of words, English uses pronouns, synonyms, metaphors, anecdotes, reduction-in-size with repetition as well as the devices of restatement, paraphrase, simile, and allusion. It is all for the purpose of maintaining the continuity of thought between and across clauses without including tedium or monotony.

So, why do good writers of English have this penchant for referring frequently to the same things over and over again in ever fresh and novel ways? Perhaps it is because they, for the most part, are not trying to discuss matters at the word level, but instead, submitting larger objects of meaning for readers' consideration, namely, the kinds of ideas which require groups of sentences to develop, steer, and understand.

To recap, since most individual words have a restricted, sentence-level function, single words typically have only local effects (except for headings). That is to say that they function to help concoct underlying sentence logic and content, but do not have a great affect on paragraph structure. Therefore, the expression of ideas and particular types of discourse such as narratives, arguments, and positional statements cannot be said to significantly occur at the level of individual words or single sentences.

How do cohesion markers help us express ideas? What is their multi-sentence function in the English language? Here is one helpful answer to this question: they hint at or label new upcoming ideas and upcoming changes in ideas. When they hint, they narrow down the focus for a reader by limiting the options for interpretation and literary purpose which could potentially be used in subsequent discourse. A cohesion marker used in this role can thus help us guess at the information which follows later on in a passage since it limits and steers our expectations in general ways; it informs us without us even reading any of the subsequent material. It helps us make many kinds of judgements, even personal ones, about portions of text.

How precise are cohesion markers at introducing upcoming thoughts, ideas, or the directions which will soon appear? Let me offer one tantalizing possibility in answer. Indeed, a few cohesion markers appear to be more precise as expressions than are the others. However, when they are considered as a group, cohesion markers generally are not very detailed or specific for the purpose of leading readers through discourse. Instead, they seem to be deliberately generalized in scope and imprecise. That is to say, once we look at cohesion markers that exist in the English language as a group, even the most commonly used ones, it is hard to escape the following impression: they exist for the purpose of leading readers through English discussions as only broad hints or rough guides. As such, they seem intended only to activate a higher-level propensity for making informed inferences or guesses. We say this because cohesion markers typically convey only a broad label or category as a notifier. They are also terse and even subtle in meaning.

Why would this be so with a language which can be highly scientific and very precise? One possibility is that there comes a point in writing where introduction, comment, and explanation take more energy than they deserve. That is, giving the specifics and details at a juncture would take up valuable time and space, thus instead, hints are used to grab the mind for a fraction of a second and fling awareness in some general, but nonetheless, useful direction. The seem to set up our consciousness with a certain broad framework and then the details will follow. Admittedly, our awareness is only cast in the general direction of where upcoming ideas or thoughts are said to flow or else about to go.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that writers themselves are frequently imprecise in their writings by design. That is, a writer can simply select a cohesion marker because it sounds 'right,' seems interesting, or appears to be an effective suggestion of how the reader should prepare for what is to come. Thus, not all authors' choices are the best semantic choices or the most helpful ones and not all authors are trying to be clear.

Cohesion markeers help sentences in combination work better and help ideas sound better and do this by intricately linking sentences together. They create a flow and a progression of thought that can indeed be worthy of the extended time spent in writing and reading of long English discourse.

What will come of cohesion markers in the English language in the future? Especially with the revolutionary changes currently happening with English publication and usage in web pages and on the Internet? Will cohesion markers go away or will they instead be used more and more in the future? It would appear that, already, linear text is being used less. For instance, they are being used less in interactive CD-ROMS and Web pages than they are in the traditional publications of the past, namely, books, periodicals, newspapers, and bulletins. Since they mark the semantic relations of thought more than the syntactic (sentence-level) ones, and do so in a linear manner, the interconnections of thought and ideas of English are probably less needed in text which can branch and jump as needed from page to page based on readers' needs and preferences.

Hyperlink (html) text is a relatively new form of English text. It is a form of interactive text which includes optional branches to multiple alternatives and various choices which are reached by 'clicking' on a hyperlink or a dialog box. The web page interaction that results from their use tends to be a highly disjointed maze of subjects which is more akin to the type of structure or organizaton used in making catalogs, telephone directories, randomly accessable databases, and book indexes. The web page itself as a form currently appears to be akin to a literary medley or pot-pourri of one author's ideas. Specifically, it ends up being a catalog-style maze of author-recommended choices for further search and inquiry at every subject level, or, in another way of expressing it, an index of select directions to take in the form of a prompting dialog. It therefore fundamentally differs from the linear development of thought found in traditional English discourse which presents either narratives, descriptions, arguments, and/or opinions in a monologue.

Traditionally, linear text as found in paper-based publications shows much more continuity and smooth transition of thought than does a web page. As such, traditional publications are much less alternative-based than web page information. They usually show a single line of argument, one individual or single group's opinion, and, most importantly a more consistent and complete line of idea development. Web-based pages are thus probably more useful for introducing matters such as that found on bulletin boards and in newsletters--the potpouris of ideas or opinions that result from pooled comments and brainstorming and the results of searches for information such as that one can find in indexes, databases, directories, or from search engines. In short, they could be used anywhere there are large networks of information with inherent branches or choices or else highly democratic bodies of ideas, where branching thought can flourish and a smooth progression of one idea into another is not needed.

It is possible that the use of cohesion markers could fall into relative disuse in the future and current English writers might become less interested or competent in terms of using them. A reduced-size and simplified standard set of cohesion markers could also be the result. Unfolding and exposing the development of one's thought and providing the continuity of an easy-to-follow presentation of ideas and opinions could become less the ideal goals for future writers. Hopefully, that won't happen, however; English writing quality may not get worse. At least, let's hope it doesn't.

As the publishing world changes over more and more to web-based, electronic publications and away from paper-based ones, we should hope that nonlinear text will grow more and more intelligent and intelligible rather than less so; that is, when compared to its grandfather, the traditional, linear text of the past.

It is commonly known that many public speakers around the world jump abruptly in thought while moving from point to point and do so in an unpredictible manner. They do so without warning, jumping from topic to topic, probably reflecting a lack of preparation and unconnected ideas spoken as those ideas pop into and out of their heads. The potential risk in writing becoming this way is that the tradition of English discourse itself could become more informal and conversational, becoming rather disjointed, increasingly inconsistent, and less comprehensible than it was in the past. Let us hope the future is brighter than this. An emphasis on formal text structuring and the proper use of cohesion markers can help secure such a future for us.

1 comment:

  1. What is a cohesion mark? I did not understand...

    Just kidding, I mean what types of cohesion markers are there?