A Multi-dimensional Approach to Discourse Coherence

From Standardness to Creativity

by Pilar Alonso (Author)
Monographs 247 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 180


This book presents a comprehensive study of the subject of text and discourse coherence, integrating some of the traditional trends of discourse analysis and creating new channels of research which help to understand the notion further. Based on the work of leading theoreticians and on the actual consideration of authentic linguistic material, the book identifies the structural and cognitive aspects of standard discourse coherence and, as a variation from other mainstream approaches, it also explores the more subjective and culturally-bound conceptual aspects of coherence construction in creative modes of discourse. To achieve these aims, the study incorporates concepts and analytical practices from cognitive linguistic theories of conceptualisation; additionally, it draws from theories of communication to address the idiosyncratic and socio-cultural aspects which affect the formation of coherent discourse patterns. The intention is to broaden the perspective of the subject and to focus on its complexity, as well as to stress the need to conceive of discourse coherence as a multi-dimensional phenomenon consisting of numerous procedural components.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: from standardness to creativity
  • Part 1 Describing Structural Coherence
  • 1. The theoretical background: A brief history of text and discourse linguistics
  • 1.1 The utterance as a prototypical unit
  • 1.2 Focusing on (oral) discourse
  • 1.3 Focusing on (written) texts
  • 1.4 Early methods of analysis
  • 1.5 The integrated parts of text and discourse
  • 2. Coherence and discourse structure
  • 2.1 Meaning construction as a collaborative process
  • 2.2 Coherence relations
  • 2.3 Local coherence relations
  • 2.4 Other sources of coherence
  • 2.5 Aspects of global coherence
  • 2.6 On the notions of theme, topic and comment
  • 3. Coherence and discourse topic construction
  • 3.1 Structural strategies of discourse topic construction: Examples from media discourse
  • 3.1.1 Lexical topic progression
  • 3.1.2 Referential topic progression
  • 3.1.3 Lexico-referential topic progression
  • 3.1.4 Syntactic strategies in global topic progression
  • 3.1.5 Thematisation as a vehicle for shared topic progression
  • 3.1.6 Combination of strategies
  • 3.2 Structural strategies of discourse topic construction: Examples from creative discourse
  • 4. From structural to cognitive coherence
  • 4.1 Inferences in cognitive representations
  • 4.2 Knowledge structures
  • 4.3 Properties of the cognitive representation of discourse
  • Part 2 Developing Cognitive Coherence
  • 5. The theoretical background: A brief history of cognitive linguistics
  • 5.1 The grounds of conceptualisation
  • 5.2 The grounds of framing
  • 5.3 The grounds of conceptual projections
  • 5.4 The grounds of blending and conceptual integration
  • 6. The lexical conceptual frame approach to discourse coherence
  • 6.1 Conceptualising lexical collocation
  • 6.2 The cognitive role of lexical collocation
  • 6.3 An example of category and frame building in media discourse
  • 6.4 Elaborative collocation as context-framed conceptual integration
  • 6.5 More examples from media discourse
  • 7. The conceptual integration approach to discourse coherence
  • 7.1 Internal and external models of coherence
  • 7.2 Conceptualising the subjective components of coherence
  • 7.3 The blended coherence model
  • 7.4 Emotions and coherence model construction
  • 7.5 Integrating emotions and coherence
  • 7.6 Implicit and explicit coherence
  • 8. The multi-dimensional communicative approach to discourse coherence
  • 8.1 Coherence construction and coherence expectations
  • 8.2 Evidence of coherence construction at the receiver’s end
  • 8.2.1 Examples from media discourse
  • 8.2.2 An example from narrative discourse
  • 8.3 Reference assignment and other key factors in mental model building
  • 8.4 The structural and cognitive coherence interface
  • 9. Conclusion
  • References

Introduction: From standardness to creativity

Within the frame of linguistic communication, the concept of coherence plays an essential part in the construction of discourse meaning. It concerns the way in which the concepts and relations which constitute the discourse conceptual world and underlie the surface text are interactive and mutually relevant for both the participants (speakers and hearers/writers and readers) and the context. For Kehler (2006), coherence is the notion at the centre of discourse definition:

While there are many aspects of discourse understanding that are poorly understood, there is one thing that we can be sure of: Discourses are not simply arbitrary collections of utterances. A felicitous discourse must instead meet a rather strong criterion, that of being COHERENT. (241, his highlighting)

A coherent discourse responds to the producer’s will to attain a goal according to a plan. It is also a decisive factor during interpretation as it concerns the text receiver’s attitude towards the text, as well as his or her willingness to cooperate in the text producer’s plan. Coherence makes a dynamic use of the diverse meanings contributed by all elements involved in communication: the participants’ identities as individuals and as members of a group; the language selected from the broad range of linguistic possibilities; and the myriad of contexts and their different properties and modes of appropriateness. Coherence makes the discourse relevant to the situation of occurrence, and determines how the situation influences the actual meaning and function of the discourse. Coherence is an expected quality of discourse and absence of coherence results in conflict and is easy to detect on general intuitive grounds. For example, a decontextualised discourse fragment as the following may be rejected as meaningless and/or incoherent:

(1) The procession here has an algebraic deliberateness, but that simplicity gives way to a complexity of meaning. ← 11 | 12 →

But it is part of a discourse episode which is both coherent and highly informative:

(2) The very best passages of Hemingway have the mathematical complexity of a fractal: a seemingly simple formula that, in its recurrence, causes slight but crucial changes over time. Take, for example, the famous retreat from Caporetto in “A Farewell to Arms”:

When daylight came the storm was still blowing but the snow had stopped. It had melted as it fell on the wet ground and now it was raining again. There was another attack just after daylight but it was unsuccessful. We expected an attack all day but it did not come until the sun was going down. The bombardment started to the south below the long wooded ridge where the Austrian guns were concentrated. We expected a bombardment but it did not come. Guns were firing from the field behind the village and the shells, going away, had a comfortable sound.

The procession here has an algebraic deliberateness, but that simplicity gives way to a complexity of meaning. Hemingway starts with the material (snow, wet, daylight, sun) only to end with the unexpected and intimate “comfortable sound” of the receding Austrian guns – a revelatory bit of naiveté on Frederic Henry’s part. Everything in this passage is intentional, from the plain imagery to the heightening of narrative urgency that comes with the repetition of “we expected”.
(November 2, 2012, Alexander Nazaryan, Why writers should learn Math. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/writers-should-learn-math.html#ixzz2CsfXalbU>)

In general terms, it is easy to reach an agreement as to the coherent nature of this excerpt or any other presumably coherent discourse; however, it is theoretically complex to identify the elements which make this discourse fragment coherent, and it is even more difficult to agree on a definition of the concept of coherence. T. A. van Dijk, who made the greatest advances in the field of discourse coherence at the early stages of text and discourse linguistics by contributing notions as essential as local and global coherence, micro and macrostructures, or the operative macrorules, has always assigned a strong intuitive component to coherence. He considers coherence crucial to the study of the semantics of discourse (1997: 9), but many of the operations he designs to capture the global meaning of a text ← 12 | 13 → or discourse (in his terms, its macrostructure) are based on intuitive decisions. In his seminal book Text and Context, he says that “intuitively, coherence is a semantic property of discourses” (1977: 93). A similar view is found in his article “Semantic Discourse Analysis” (1985), where he identifies a series of essential semantic relations involved in the creation and maintenance of discourse coherence at the local intersentential level. However, his final proposal for a theoretical description of how the global meaning of a text is understood and interpreted by text receivers is once again left in the hands of text users and their intuitive communicative behaviour. Van Dijk claims that together with the linguistic strategies employed in the development of discourse, there are decisive cognitive and contextual constituents which connect discourse with the real world and with the text participants’ own experiences, and admits that this brings a considerable degree of subjectivity into the process of meaning interpretation. He relies on the common socio-cultural ground shared by text participants “to guarantee successful communication and interaction” (1985: 117), and bases his theoretical proposal to recover the general meaning or macrostructure of a discourse (i. e. his macro-rules) on the “expertise” of discourse analysts as actual language users. Van Dijk describes macrostructures as the theoretical correlate of intuitive everyday summaries of texts or discourse and seems to perceive little difference between the ways in which the two activities are carried out, except for the different purposes which guide each of them and the specialised skills of the analyst.

Later developments in the field of discourse studies have opted for the investigation of precisely the cognitive and pragmatic sides of coherence which van Dijk considered determinants in the semantic operations he described. According to Schiffrin, linguists commonly assume that “messages are created through an interaction between two different types of information. The first type of information is often called ‘semantic’ […]. The second type of information is contextual information” (1994: 362). To these two types of textual or discourse information, and in view of later research in the field of discourse comprehension and processing (cf. Tapiero 2007), there is the need to add a third type of information which concerns the cognitive factor. For example, Tomlin et al. view coherence as a central ← 13 | 14 → element in the building of a mental representation of the text by the discourse receiver; they tentatively describe the “listener’s” text representation as “something like the gist of the text” and say that it “is generally taken to be a set of propositions linked to one another to form a coherent whole” (1997: 72). Along the same line, Sanders and Spooren see coherence relations as “part of the cognitive representation that a reader makes of a text” (2009: 199). Blakemore also states that “coherence is a cognitive notion: it is a notion which, it is argued, people use when interpreting utterances” and bases this hypothesis on the assumption that “the hearer of a text constructs a representation of the information it contains which integrates the propositions expressed into a larger whole”. She adds that “coherence relations are the various ways in which this integration takes place” (2006: 234).

Such a tendency to associate coherence with receiver-oriented aspects of discourse can already be detected in Brown and Yule’s classic work Discourse Analysis (1983), where they also mention intuition as a valid recourse in dealing with the concept. Their approach focuses on the more pragmatic aspects of the participants’ assumptions during the communicative act. They say that coherence is something language users naturally assume (1983: 66), and explain how receivers use previous knowledge of other similar texts, and general knowledge of world conventions to interpret discourse coherently by analogy (1983: 224-225). Although much of their work in this book explores issues which form the basis for the producer’s decisions concerning the construction of a coherent discourse (discourse topic, thematisation, information structure, etc.), the chapter they specifically devote to coherence is centred mostly on the receivers’ resources in interpreting discourse coherently, thus linking coherence directly to the receiver’s role in the communicative process. Other parallel approaches (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Matsui 2000; Blakemore 1992, 2001) have taken this position further and have converted the notion into a pragmatic function of textual communication, making it depend on the text receiver’s search for relevance.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Pilar Alonso (Author)

Pilar Alonso is Associate Professor of English Linguistics in the English Department at the University of Salamanca, Spain. Her main fields of research are Discourse Analysis, Discourse Coherence and Cognitive Linguistics with a special interest in Literary Discourse Analysis. She has published extensively on semantic, pragmatic and cognitive aspects of literary and media discourse.


Title: A Multi-dimensional Approach to Discourse Coherence