Legal writing: Noticing cohesion

MilkywayHave you ever read something written by a non-native English speaking LLM student, and the grammar seems fine, it makes sense, and yet something seems off? Something you can’t put your finger on?

That something might be “cohesion.”

Cohesion is the glue that holds our sentences together. It’s second nature to us as native English speakers and teachers of legal writing, and therefore can seem difficult to teach to LLM students. And that means it’s a good candidate for a noticing activity!

I like to start with a text written by a native English speaker that I know the students can read and comprehend well. Ideally something they’ve already read and had ample time to process. Today I used a “Summary of the Day” which I had written. We had already analyzed the reading and discussed the form of other summaries previously. I also like to use some of the model answers from the “jogger/banana peel” critical thinking question. An excerpt from a textbook they’re reading works well too.

I talk about the idea of cohesion and what it means in writing, i.e., making sentences feel connected to each other. Then I point out some of the cohesive devices we frequently use.

  1. Conjunctions: and, but, or, etc. as well as because, as a result, finally, and other connecting words and phrases.
  2. Repeating information: If you mention the United Nations in one sentence, then you might mention it in the next sentence which helps create a sense of connection. Synonyms are another way we do this.
  3. References: Pointing to information elsewhere, either within the text or to something outside the text. Words like “that” and “this” are also in this category.
  4. Pronouns: Using a pronoun makes an inherent reference to information that came before. Try not using pronouns in something you write. See how funny it sounds.
  5. Old information/new information: Often we organize our sentences so that old information (i.e., things we already know from the previous sentence) is at the beginning of the subsequent sentence, and new information is in the latter half of that sentence. This one is a real eye-opener for students (and for me as well the first time I learned about it). It helps explain why we twist and turn our language in various ways which in turn often explains why in legal writing (and academic writing in general) we have so many sentences that start off with a bunch of words followed by a comma.

Note: These are only a subset of the universe of cohesive devices. There are more categories, and they can also be broken down into grammatical and lexical categories.

The next step is to start looking at sentences and asking students which cohesive devices they see. I go sentence by sentence and have the students label each sentence. Sometimes the cohesive device isn’t obvious or doesn’t fit neatly into a category I’ve provided. This is a great opportunity for discussion about whether we should create a new category (which is itself a kind of critical thinking practice that is similar to legal analysis).

If I’m using model answers for a legal writing question or assignment, i.e., the kind of writing my students are expected to produce, then the students get to notice exactly the kinds of cohesive devices they should be using. It also answers the question of which cohesive devices to focus on: whichever ones pop up frequently in the model answers.

Using this noticing approach also helps them notice the grammatical and syntactical hoops they have to jump through to bend the sentence to their will. For example, if the first sentence were [“Today in class we discussed the United Nations”], then the next sentence might be [“In connection with the UN, we made a list of what we already know on the topic.”] It might sound slightly awkward or less sophisticated if I instead wrote [“Today in class we discussed the United Nations. We made a list of what we already know about the topic of the UN.”] Nothing in that second sentence is wrong. I just feels a little off. But once you look at it in terms of old information/new information, it makes sense to move the UN reference to the beginning. This in turn necessitates a phrase like “In connection with….” to make the UN the topic of the sentence, though not the subject.

The more I can let my students practice this kind of noticing, the more they are aware of, absorb, and transfer their knowledge into their own writing. Plus, it also gives them a tool to figure these kinds of things out for themselves after they’ve moved on from my course. Have to write a law review-style article but worried about sounding funny? Just look at sentences from other law review articles and notice how they connect their language.

Bonus cohesion noticing activityTake a short text and remove all the cohesive devices, i.e., pronouns, repetitions, transition words, etc. Have the students read the original. Then read the non-cohesive version and try to pinpoint what’s missing or what would make it sound better. Then give them both version together and have them notice the differences. This can be a way to help the students develop a better “ear” for writing in a natural-sounding way.



1 thought on “Legal writing: Noticing cohesion

  1. Pingback: Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students | St. John's Legal English Blog

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