Williams on cohesion

Joseph M. Williams’s principles of coherence

Notes from ch. 3 of Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

Why passive voice is sometimes appropriate
  • Given two sentences in a row, the later sentence should often “echo” or have a conceptual link to the earlier sentence.
  • The beginning of a sentence should include familiar ideas or ideas you have already mentioned.
  • The end of a sentence (its “stress”) should include new information. “Each sentence should teach your reader something new.”[1] The new information in a sentence is typically the most important, so it should go in the sentence’s most emphatic position (its end).
Beginning a sentence: state the sentence’s topic
  • State the sentence’s “topic” (= the concept the rest of the sentence will say something about). The topic is usually “a noun phrase of some kind that the rest of the sentence says something about.”[2] Most sentences and clauses contain topics in their grammatical subjects.
  • Avoid beginning a sentence with too much “metadiscourse” (e.g. “We think it useful to provide …”, “It is important that …”)

Other things you can do at the beginning of a sentence in addition to stating the topic:

  • “At the beginning of every sentence, locate your reader in familiar territory.”[3]
  • You can use “transitional metadiscourse” (e.g. “and”, “but”, “therefore”, “as a result”) to connect a sentence with the previous sentence.
  • You can use expressions such as “fortunately”, “perhaps”, etc. to help the reader evaluate the information that comes later in the sentence.
  • You can “locate action in time and place”[4] using phrases such as “then”, “later”, and “in recent years.”
Topic strings
  • The sentences in a paragraph should share a coherent string of topics, creating a sense that the paragraph is focused on a central idea.
  • Revision strategy: Underline the first six words per sentence in a paragraph. If any of these underlined phrases “seems clearly outside the general set of topics, check whether it refers to ideas mentioned toward the end of the previous sentence. If not, consider revising.”[5]

[1] Williams 1995 p. 49. [2] Id. at p. 50. [3] Id. at p. 52. [4] Id. at p. 49. [5] Id. at p. 56.