Coherence: Connectives and Logic

last changed 24 June 2003


Introduction: coherence, connectives and logic

This unit is about one of the main aspects of coherence, the quality of a text that 'hangs together' in terms of its meaning. In a coherent text it is clear how each part of the text is intended to relate to other parts. Other aspects of coherence which are discussed elsewhere are:

Connectives are words such as but, if and therefore which indicate logical relations between two clauses or sentences. They belong to three different word classes:

  • coordinating conjunctions: but, and, or
  • subordinating conjunctions: if, because, until, etc.
  • adverbs: therefore, nevertheless, then, meanwhile, etc.

When to use a connective

We use connectives to show how ideas are connected logically, but in many cases these logical relations are so obvious that we can leave them implicit. For example, the following KS3 commentary on H G Wells's description of a Martian contains no connectives, but it is obvious that the second sentence exemplifies the first, and that its three clauses are simply added together. The connectives for example and and could have been used, but are unnecessary so it was right to leave them out.

The narrator uses words that give no personality to the Martian. He uses words like "it", he describes "something" emerging from the craft, he describes grey glistening inhuman flesh.

In other cases, however, it is important to make the logical relations explicit. Notice the crucial effect of the connective even in the following KS3 commentary on a story about two elderly brothers:

The writer suggests that Lewis and Benjamin have lived the same way all their lives. They have never tried anything different. Even in the house they have kept things the same for over sixty years, like the photographs of the uncles and cousins.

This connective helps the reader to navigate through the logic of the passage. It signals explicitly that what follows is an example - in fact, an extreme and unexpected example - of what went before.

It is easy to find KS3 examples where the logical relations are neither obvious nor explicitly signalled - in short, where the writing is muddled. Take this attempt at a travel brochure about Wales:

Wales is a very beautiful place. There is lots to do here. If you like walking there are plenty of nice walks for you. There is one place in Wales that I have been to many times. It is called Shell Island. It is full of mystery and excitement.

The first sentence makes a very general claim (about the beauty of the countryside) which we might expect the second sentence to support in some way, but instead it moves on to a completely different claim (plenty to do). The third sentence does support this claim briefly by giving an example (walks), but the fourth sentence once again moves the logic on to focus on a particular place, whose virtues (mystery and excitement) have nothing to do with either of the previous points.

Muddled logic looks like implicit logic (as in the H G Wells example), but they are easy to distinguish by a connectives test. If the logical relations are clear but implicit, they can generally be made explicit through connectives (e.g. for example and and in the earlier example). The muddle of the last passage becomes clear if we add the only possible connective, and, between the first two sentences:

Wales is a very beautiful place, and there is lots to do here.

Here it is clear that the claim about beauty is unsupported, and correspondingly feeble.

Weaker writers at KS3 may be able to minimise logical muddles such as this by using more connectives and perhaps even by avoiding implicit logic altogether.

How to choose a connective

The primary consideration in choosing a connective is obviously meaning - what is the logical relation that needs to be made explicit? For example, because, so and therefore express different logical relations from although, but and nevertheless:

He was angry because the food was cold.

The food was cold, so he was angry.

The food was cold. Therefore he was angry.

He was angry although the food was cold.

The food was cold, but he was angry.

The food was cold. Nevertheless, he was angry.

However as these examples also show, we also have to pay attention to syntax - what is the grammatical relation between the ideas that have this logical relation? The connectives because, so and therefore express the same logic, but they are very different grammatically:

  • because is a subordinating conjunction introducing the subordinate clause because the food was cold;
  • so is a co-ordinating conjunction which simply links the clauses on either side of it on equal footing;
  • therefore is an adverb which refers back to an idea expressed earlier, so it means 'because of that'.

We choose among these options according to how we want to present the two ideas (the cause and the effect).

  • If we want to treat the cause and effect as a single idea, we need a subordinate clause and use because; this allows us to focus attention on either cause or effect, according to the order in which we present them:

    Why was he angry? He was angry because the food was cold. (Focus: the food was cold)

    What was the effect of the cold food? Because the food was cold, he was angry. (Focus: he was angry)

  • If we want to treat the cause and effect as separate and equally important, we use so to co-ordinate the two clauses; in this case the cause clause must stand before the effect clause:
  • The food was cold so he was angry.

  • If we want to describe the cause and effect separately - perhaps even in separate sentences - we can still show the logical relation by using therefore somewhere in the effect clause.

    The food was cold. Therefore he was angry.

    The food was cold. He was therefore angry.

 

These syntactic options are a boon to writers because of the flexibility they allow, but part of the writer's skill lies in exploiting this flexibility. This skill develops over time through practice, reading and explicit attention to the options.

A list of connectives

The table below presents some of the main connectives classified roughly according to their meaning and their grammar. You may find it helpful as a resource for planning the teaching of connectives.

 

 

broad meaning

connective adverbs and phrases

conjunctions

addition

also, too, similarly, in addition, even, indeed, let alone

and, as, like

opposition

however, nevertheless, on the other hand, in contrast, though, alternatively, anyway, yet, in fact, even so

but, or, (al)though, whereas, while

reinforcing

besides, anyway, after all

 

explaining

for example, for instance, in other words, that is to say, i.e., e.g.

in that

listing

first(ly) ... second(ly), first of all, finally, lastly, for one thing ... for another, in the first place, to begin with, next, in sum, to conclude, in a nutshell

and

indicating result

therefore, consequently, as a result, so, then

because, since, as, for, if, unless, now (that), so (that), in case, provided (that), whether ... or ...

indicating time

then, meanwhile, later, afterwards, before (that), since (then), meanwhile

when, before, after, since, until, till, while, as, once, whenever

 

Familiar and unfamiliar connectives

Some of the connectives in the table are already very familiar to any KS3 pupil. By far the most common connectives in conversation are:

  • subordinating conjunctions: when, because, if;
  • co-ordinating conjunctions: and, but, or;
  • adverbs: so, then, anyway, though (as in It's not my fault, though).

Here is an example of a relatively weak KS3 writer discussing the ending of a newspaper report on Loch Ness, with the connectives (and a related preposition, because of) highlighted.

The end paragraph links well because the writer talks about scepticism because I think most people that went there would be very sceptical about the whole idea, but she says that she has abandoned most of her skepticism because of the evidence that backs this up. This paragraph is different to the rest because the writer talks about her own feelings towards the Loch Ness Monster.

As can be seen, this writer uses only two connectives, because and but.

The main challenge for writers at KS3 is to expand their repertoire of connectives to include less familiar ones as in the following more ambitious attempt at the same task:

The last paragraph, I think, is very suitable to close the article. Firstly the writer asks again the question in the title, reminding readers what it is about. Then she aims to give a summary of her findings and see if she has sorted the mystery. She relates the last paragraph well to the rest of the article 'a prehistoric sea creature dwelling in one of their lochs' and also mentions the Urquhart Castle and reminds the reader about how famous the loch is. She relates it particularly well to the opening paragraph as she talks of returning as a visitor to the Highlands, and in the first paragraph she talks of other visitors.

The last paragraph is written from her own point of view in a chatty way as she concludes her experiences and her opinions of them. 'Do I believe in Nessie? Well to be honest ...' This differs to the rest of the passage as she is not really writing about her feeling there. This is an effective way to end, therefore, as it is a personal conclusion to her visit and the reader will want an opinion of the area as he decides whether to visit or not.

Perhaps the most interesting features of this passage are:

  • the repeated use of as, which corresponds in some cases to because and in others to when; this signals a move away from ordinary speech, but the price paid is slight uncertainty about meaning;
  • the inclusion of the rather rare connectives firstly and therefore.

This writer seems to be developing a collection of connectives specifically for use in writing, and may even be consciously aware of doing so.