J. M. Pressley
Academic Papers · Essays · Poetry · Sports · Writing Samples

Marc Pressley
ENG 483 (Comp Theory)
Professor Roger Graves
June 3, 1997

Coherence in Paragraph-Level Structures

My experience as a high school student led to an observation that English, and more specifically, composition, is taught in many quarters as a series of aphorisms. "A paragraph is a minimum of three sentences," "a classic essay is five paragraphs arranged 1-3-1," or "always begin a paragraph with a topic sentence" come immediately to mind. When it comes to cohesion and coherence, however, aphorisms fail. Such measures are convenient (if questionably effective) for instructing students in grammar or punctuation. What good is it when a perfectly spelled and grammatical composition cannot transmit a coherent thought? The purpose of this paper is to explore coherence through the vehicle of paragraph.

How do we define coherence? In Keywords in Composition Studies, the term is labeled as "mysterious" and "hard to teach" (Heilker and Vandenberg, 30). Traditional structure-based theory represents the idea that coherence is a system of embedded links within the text which by design create an understanding of the whole through arrangement. The more recent—and inherently larger, more complex—theories of textual coherence incorporate discourse analysis as well as a dense conglomeration of psychological, rhetorical, and cultural mapping to explain the delivery of information. Such definitions of coherence, as put forth by theorists such as Rochelle Smith and Louise Wetherbee Phelps, approach coherence as a nebulous quality outside the text, "a reader-centered phenomenon" or "collaborative synthesis" (Heilker and Vandenberg, 32). While philosophically intriguing, these scholarly debates are largely beyond the scope of this paper as it deals with structuralist design. I am therefore limiting this discussion of coherence to the logical flow and arrangement of ideas to create a unified and aesthetic whole.

It is also important to define coherence against the term "cohesion," with which it is often used interchangeably. To quote Cohesion in English: "The concept of cohesion is a semantic one; it refers to relations of meaning that exist within the text, and that define it as a text" (Halliday and Hasan, 4). "A text is a unit of language in use. A text is not something that is like a sentence, only bigger; it is something that differs from a sentence in kind" (Halliday and Hasan, 1). Halliday and Hasan provide a theory and system of cohesive ties, broken down into five basic classes, that give semantic internal cohesion to writing. However, their focus on semantics as opposed to structure grounds their theory in sentence structure—as do most works on cohesion done since then, which draw heavily on Halliday and Hasan's foundation. This paper concerns itself with unit coherence as opposed to cohesion.

Why the importance of unit coherence? The reasoning is twofold. For one thing, the curriculum has traditionally favored mechanical correctness (being easier to codify) over coherence in the teaching of writing, despite the complaints of teachers regarding the critical-formulative skills of their students. In conjunction with this displacement of coherence, study of the paragraph has been seriously neglected when compared to other areas of composition theory. This oversight ignores the potential value of the paragraph in teaching composition.

Barbara Williams states that teachers do not consider the mechanical errors of writing, such as spelling and grammar, to be the most serious weakness of student writing—rather, it is a question of idea support in paragraph-level structure (3). Furthermore, current research calls into question the traditional hierarchy of error correction, or indeed, what makes a mechanical error at all. Most of the aphorisms I recall from my instruction in writing are frequently ignored by professional writers and real-world "model" texts (Haswell, 364). What distinguishes garbled student composition from professional writing is more often coherence.

There are three representative theoretical approaches to explore in paragraph studies. First, we have Bain's traditional paragraph theory as presented by Williams, among others. Second, we have the theory of Francis Christensen as presented through his work Notes Toward a New Rhetoric. Finally, there is the work of Alton Becker in tagmemic paragraph theory. All three approaches have risen from an instructional need in the classroom, and each successive theory builds upon a perceived flaw in its predecessor.

Traditional paragraph theory hearkens back to Scottish educator Alexander Bain, who in his 1866 work, English Composition and Rhetoric, set forth his rules for the "organic paragraph." Paragraphs begin with a topic sentence, followed by developing sentences, with focus placed on "unity, coherence, and development" (Connors and Glenn, 247). Bain's model would prove durable until the 1960's, when it began to be questioned for "being reductive and prescriptive" (Connors and Glenn, 244). The paragraph has been marginalized since then, especially by discourse theorists such as Pitkin or Rodgers, who describe text not in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but rather in discourse segments. This marginalization, however, ignores the powerful psychological presence of reader expectations—the paragraph exists because of cognitive needs (Connors and Glenn, 245).

Bain's traditionalism is rooted in coherence, or as Williams states, the simple rule that "not only should every sentence in the paragraph discuss the same controlling idea, but each sentence should also connect smoothly to the sentence which precedes it and the one which follows" (Williams, 17). Though Richard Braddock's study seriously questions the value of topic sentences (noting that his control group of professional writers neglected to begin their paragraphs with topic sentences up to 87% of the time), the idea of unity, development, and coherence persist in spite of all attempts to snuff them. Traditional paragraph theory is proving more resistant than its detractors have hoped—and keeps getting reincarnated, as the next two theories will demonstrate.

The modern approaches in the traditional line of study center around coherence through transitions and transitional markers, as well as the devices of repetition, parallel structure, and pronoun reference (Connors and Glenn, 249). Williams divides coherence into two general categories; one is transitional devices as mentioned above. The other, which seems to relate to the discourse convention of the given-new contract, is arrangement of material. The material may be arranged according to time, spatial order, climactic order, order of complexity, or causal relations (Williams, 18). The heart of this approach uses the paragraph not as a unit of invention, but as a unit of revision. Therein lies the criticism of contemporary theorists—the paragraph of Bain wasn't designed for heuristic usage, and therefore is of little use in the process-oriented classroom.

Christensen represents the new wave of theorists in the CCCC in the 1960's. Using his work with cumulative sentences as a base, Christensen applied much the same technique to paragraphs in his work, "A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph" (Conners and Glenn, 250). To quote the description given by Lester Faigley:

Christensen believed that the paragraph is structurally a macrosentence, and he found intuitive evidence that the paragraph is structurally similar to the cumulative sentence from the fact that many of his cumulative sentence examples could easily be translated into paragraphs if the nonrestrictive modifiers were made into complete sentences (Faigley, 82).

Faigley also goes on to describe how Becker and Rodgers immediately criticized the Christensen model for its lack of a supporting semantic theory to explain the classifications of Christensen's system. Becker countered with a tagmemic alternative which failed on the same charges that he leveled against Christensen. Rodgers took the stance that the paragraph was orthographic rather than semantic and centered his theory around stadia of discourse.

Christensen's findings can be reduced to four points (Connors and Glenn, 250-251):

  1. No paragraphs are possible without addition.
  2. When a sentence is added, we must see the direction of modification or movement.
  3. When sentences are added, they are usually at a lower level of generality.
  4. The more sentences added, the denser the texture of the paragraph.

In the classroom, however, Christensen's work is best applied as is Bain's—revision, not invention. It is descriptive rather than generative (Connors and Glenn, 253). The disadvantage of using Christensen in the classroom is that it requires at least passing familiarity with Christensen's cumulative sentence theory to understand the implications and differentiate it from traditional paragraph methodology. It also does not solve the controversy surrounding the importance of topic sentences, as all additions spring from a beginning idea source which parallels Bain. Many principles of Christensen seem to paraphrase Bain, and he does not make as radical a departure from tradition as one might suspect.

My final examination is Becker's model of paragraphs. Based on Kenneth Pike's work in tagmemics, which lifted a linguistic analysis tool and grafted it onto composition, this work based in class "slot theory" encouraged Becker to apply it to paragraph analysis. Becker attempted to combine more of an analysis of the components with the traditional description of those components (Connors and Glenn, 258). Tagmemic theory concentrates on three primary patterns in expository paragraphing:

  1. TRI (Topic, Restriction, Illustration)
  2. PS (Problem, Solution)
  3. QA (Question, Answer)

The advantage to Becker's theory is that it functions with more limited concepts than the other two theories presented in this paper, and is thus relatively easy to absorb for students. The main disadvantage is that Becker's theory is narrow and unfinished. Becker himself admits to the limitations, noting that his theory does not expound upon paragraphs outside the expository paradigm, and is at a loss to contribute to analysis of content-based aspects of paragraph structure (Connors and Glenn, 258).

In addition, Becker has founded his theory upon a structuralist approach not altogether dissimilar from Bain, albeit with a certain degree more of fluidity. A lot of tagmemic analysis also owes a certain degree of familiarity to Christensen's levels of generality—Becker's slots parallel Christensen's additions, which in turn parallel Bain's developmental sentences. To wit, let's examine a sample paragraph as seen through the lens of all three methods, which drives the derivative nature of each home:

[1] During those early days after World War II there were many other couples who could not afford automobiles, and therefore relied on bicycles to get them to and from their offices and classrooms. [2] But my husband and I were probably the only husband-wife team who shared a one-seater second-hand bicycle along the cobblestone streets of Cambridge. [3] In a way, it was painful, sharing that bicycle. [4] It was painful receiving the jests and stares of pedestrians. [5] And it was painful in a well-localized portion of my anatomy, as anyone who has seen those cobblestones may suspect. [6] However, no real process of learning is achieved without pain—if only the small torment of giving up old prejudices. (Williams, 29)

As the following paragraph was taken from an exercise in Barbara Williams' book, let's begin with Bain and tradition. According to Bain's definition, we have a classic expository paragraph which begins with a topic sentence, followed by four developmental sentences, with a summary sentence at the end leading smoothly (presumably) into the next paragraph. It uses a number of "vogue" devices to achieve its unity; transitional markers, coordinating conjunctions, and structural parallelism. Any number of teachers and professionals would likely view such writing as fundamentally sound. How would Christensen and Becker compare?

The above paragraph conforms to Christensen's four rules. Everything flows in what Christensen would term a "simple subordinate sequence;" that is, every sentence in the paragraph builds upon the idea generated in the first topic sentence. This is further demonstrated by the structural parallelism of sentences [3] through [5] (a usual marker of coordination according to Christensen). One model might appear as this:

1. _________
  2. __________
     3. ___________
     4. ___________
     5. ___________
6. ___________

On the other hand, this structure also encompasses Becker as well as Christensen and Bain, as [1] is the clear Topic sentence, [2] is construed as the Restrictive (limiting the topic sentence generality to the specific instance of this husband and wife), [3] through [5] are Illustrative, springing from sentence [2], and [6] poses a transition to the next topic.

From this example, it is unclear what differs between Bain, Christensen, and Becker, terminology notwithstanding. The paragraph quoted from Williamson provides an exemplary model of all three, and seems say more for the endurance of Bain than innovation on the part of the newer theorists. All three methods are grounded in structure and designed on the same principles of coherence.

To conclude my examination of modern paragraph theory, the three approaches delineated above represent the overwhelmingly structuralist nature of the subject in composition studies. This is in direct opposition to the mandate of the expressivist camp in the field, which dictates that heuristics, process, and the individual voice of the writer take precedence over prescribed standardization and form-oriented instruction. Writers like Elbow or Macrorie would reject the notion of form and/or structure as overly limiting the writer and forcing patterns onto a subject. In evaluating the structural approaches above, it is necessary to address the antithetical response of the expressivists in relation.

I reject the expressivist abandonment of form on a number of grounds. If their position of pure process and individual voice is taken to its logical extreme, it results in a total validation too widespread to be of practical use in an educational curriculum. The students with which theorists are most concerned need structure to comprehend model structures in order to discover and improve their voice. And it ignores the role of form as a potential and viable heuristic. Ultimately, the true expressivist view places too much responsibility upon the students, setting them adrift without even the benefit of model forms to guide them, which is as much an academic sin as teaching form without attention being paid to content or process.

What I would therefore argue would be a structural approach based on paragraph coherence, rather than concentrating primarily on sentence-level cohesion and mechanics. For beginning or intermediate writers, it is not important to either learn form or find voice; it is important to find voice through form. To quote The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing:

We all may worry that in condensing writing to discrete, mechanical formulas, we are taking away more than we are giving. But be assured that with continued reading and practice in writing, your students should eventually transcend rigid, formal rules. In the final analysis, a grasp of the rules seldom holds anyone down and, when understood correctly, can help keep one up (Connors and Glenn, 262).

Students have to read before they can write, and structure, particularly that of the paragraph, lends itself to aiding students in grasping the concepts of writing. Once the "standard" paragraphs are addressed, the teacher can then move to so-called "problem" paragraphs, or those which are written against the grain of traditional structural theories.

Even according to social discourse theory, this combination approach seems desirable. It is wrong to ignore the individual in the writing process, but is it any less wrong to ignore the discourse community for which we as instructors are supposed to prepare the student for entry? Paragraph theory can provide both the method for discovery and the vehicle for entry. As long as there is a balance between content, individual, and form, such instruction seems to me the most viable solution to creating effective student writers.

Works Cited

Connors, Robert and Cheryl Glenn. The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing (3d ed). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992

Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. New York: Longman, 1976

Haswell, Richard H. "Textual Research and Coherence: Findings, Intuition, Application," in Composition in Four Keys: Inquiring into the Field, ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Wetherbee Phelps (California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996)

Heilker, Paul and Peter Vandenberg. Keywords in Composition Studies. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1996

Williams, Barbara. The Well-Structured Paragraph. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1970


J. M. Pressley Home