KS3 grammar: Coherence, anaphora and reference


Introduction: coherence, anaphora and reference

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:

  • the logical links which are indicated by connectives such as but, when, because, therefore and nevertheless;
  • the consistent choice of tense and person.

Anaphora is the name for the relationship between she and Mary in

Mary looked out of the window. The sky looked threatening, so she decided to take an umbrella.

What the two highlighted words share is the fact that they both refer to the same person – they have the same reference. The word she refers back to the word Mary without repeating the name. This ‘reference back’ is called anaphora. Successful writers keep track of the various people and things that they mention by building a reference chain by means of anaphoric devices such as pronouns. KS3 writers sometimes fail to make these links clear, thus spoiling the coherence of their writing.


The part of coherence with which we are concerned here involves reference: the way in which the text refers to people, places, events and so on. Let us call all these people and things ‘characters‘.

For example, in this sentence by a KS3 pupil there are six characters to which reference is made.

When his grandfather came the atmosphere was as if there were trees and plants in his bedroom.

  • ‘he’ (i.e. the boy described in the poem), referred to by the word his
  • the grandfather, referred to by the phrase his grandfather
  • the atmosphere, referred to by the phrase they atmosphere
  • trees
  • plants
  • the bedroom (his bedroom)

After the first reference a character is ‘on stage‘, a continuation of the drama metaphor.

Reference chains

A simple reference chain tracks a single character through the text. Usually the first link introduces the character, so this link needs to provide enough information to distinguish the character from everything else in the world. This typically requires a full noun phrase (e.g. the people next door or a large grey cat). Once ‘on stage’, however, the character is much easier to identify because it only needs to be distinguished from the other characters that are already on stage. Consequently the subsequent links give just enough information for this, using one of the anaphoric devices that you can look at in more detail if you wish.

These anaphoric devices are useful because they save effort (e.g. they is much easier to say, write and understand than the people next door), but they also avoid potential misunderstanding because we know that they are not introducing new characters. For example, consider the effect of repeating a large grey cat:

A large grey cat was lying on the stairs, and I had to step over a large grey cat.

Is this sentence referring to one cat or two? The sentence is not just clumsy and long-winded, but the extra words are actually counterproductive because they make it less clear than it would have been with a pronoun as the second link:

A large grey cat was lying on the stairs, and I had to step over it.

Here we can be sure that there is only one cat.

Where problems arise: anaphora and coherence

Anaphora is relevant to coherence because it works by linking one word back to another word which refers to the same character. The text quoted earlier continues as follows:

He made it sound as if it was outside and not inside. When I read it I felt as if he was a farmer of some sort. I thought that the boy wanted him to be there and not to be there.

At least two words in the continuation refer to the grandfather:

  • he in he was a farmer
  • him in the boy wanted him to be there.

Since the grandfather has already been introduced by his grandfather, these two pronouns refer back to this phrase, thereby building a reference chain:

his grandfather … he … him

which is held together by anaphora and which extends across four sentences.

Lack of clarity in these links makes a text incoherent. For example, it is uncertain whether or not the pronoun he in he made it sound also refers to the grandfather (it probably refers to the poet); and the reference of the pronoun it varies between the global situation (makes it sound as though it was outside) and the poem (when I read it).

Uncertain reference of pronouns is a common mistake in the writing of KS3 pupils. For example, in KS3 essays it is common to find a pronoun that refers back to a character mentioned in the material on which the essay is based. The first few words of an essay quoted earlier are:

When his grandfather came,

where his refers back to a character in the poem under discussion (and possibly to the essay-question). In this case the writer is treating the essay as a continuation of the text read in class.

At KS3, pupils already know the personal pronoun system well and apply it in everyday conversation. However the system becomes less effective as the number of similar characters on stage increases. For example, in the following text there are numerous references to Benjamin, which are highlighted:

Benjamin seemed frightend when he seen the plane. Is uncle tried to foreds [force?] him. Lewis seem very surprise to see the planes. Benjemin seemed scared to sign when Alex said if we land in a farmer’s felid and kill some old farmer’s cow. He was afrided he could land in his farm and kill is cattle. ones he sign they went in the plane ones up in the air he seemed to forget he was in the plane.

As long as he is the only character on stage, Benjamin can be referred to safely by he and [h]is. Even after the uncle has been introduced, him refers unambiguously to Benjamin because in this position in the clause the only way to refer to the pronoun is by using himselfa reflexive pronoun. When Lewis is introduced the writer (correctly) reverts to Benjamin’s name in order to avoid confusion.

However by the time we have reached the sentence He was afraid, a third character (Alex) is on stage, so it might have been better to use Benjamin’s name again instead of the pronoun. In this sentence another character is also introduced (a farmer), so it is in fact quite unclear whether his field and [h]is cattle) refer to this farmer’s field and cattle, or to Benjamin’s.

More generally, then, personal pronouns work well as long as there is only one potential ‘target’ among the characters on stage. When this is not true, the writer has to take care that the reference is clear. Often the writer has to balance this risk of confusion against the simplicity of the pronoun, and an inexperienced writer may underestimate the danger (or the work required of the reader).

Anaphoric devices

Pronouns in anaphora and reference

Pronouns are far and away the most commonly used word classes to create reference chains. A lack of clarity in the reference of pronouns is also the most common mistake in this area found in the writing of KS3 pupils, who often appear to assume, because they know in their own minds who him or her or his or it refers to, that the reader must know too.

The most common kind of reference chain has personal pronouns for all the links except the first:

Once upon a time there was an old woman who had a lazy son. She was forever scolding him, but it made no difference – he spent all his time lying in the sunshine, ignoring her. His main job was to look after her goats, but he preferred to sleep in the sun.

The two chains in this text are as follows:

an old woman – she – her – her

a lazy son – him – he – his – his – he

The creation of reference chains here is relatively easy, since there are only two characters mentioned and one is female and the other is male.

Third-person pronouns are normally reserved for non-initial links, but first-person and second-person pronouns may even be the first link because it is nearly always clear who they refer to (i.e. the speaker and the person addressed):

Hello, how are you? I’m so pleased to see you. How long is it since we last met? Didn’t you ring me about six months ago? ….

Even third-person pronouns can occasionally be used as the first link, provided that the person concerned is easy to identify from the context; e.g. if Bill often calls for his friend Ben, “Is he in?” may be sufficient to identify Ben.

The use of a third person pronoun as first link is also a common literary device in narrative, as it forces the reader to engage actively with the text by guessing who the characters are, as in this example from the opening sentence of the narrative of George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda:

Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance?


Pronouns are not the only anaphoric device that is available. The same text illustrates three others.

Benjamin seemed frightend when he seen the plane. Is uncle tried to foreds [force?] him. Lewis seem very surprise to see the planes. Benjemin seemed scared to sign when Alex said if we land in a farmer’s felid and kill some old farmer’s cow. He was afrided he could land in his farm and kill is cattle. ones he sign they went in the plane ones up in the air he seemed to forget he was in the plane.

In addition to these devices we can include two more which are not found in this text.

  • substitution (e.g. He may be late. If so we shall miss the bus.)
  • apposition (e.g. Benjamin, an elderly farmer)

KS3 pupils rarely use the last four devices in writing, though they often meet them in their reading.

All the reference chains discussed so far were simple, in the sense that they tracked a single character. Complex reference chains are also important at KS3.

Definiteness in anaphora and reference

The definite article the is generally used to indicate that the character referred to is already on stage, or at least known to the reader, in contrast with the indefinite articles a and some, which signal the introduction of a new character:

Once upon a time there was an old woman who had a lazy daughter. The woman used to scold the daughter all day long.

These articles allow a reference chain to be built, without confusion, out of full noun phrases:

an old woman … the woman …

a lazy daughter … the daughter …

If the first link in a text contains a definite article, this is often because the reference chain in fact extends back to a previous text:

Benjamin seemed frightend when he seen the plane.

This is the first sentence of the sample text, and the refers back to the passage on which the questions are based.

Although the definite and indefinite articles are generally used effectively in conversation, the special demands of writing may produce problems for KS3 pupils. The sample text contains an example:

Benjemin seemed scared to sign when Alex said if we land in a farmer’s felid and kill some old farmer’s cow.

Are the farmers intended to be the same or different? The use of the indefinite some suggests that the second farmer is a different person from the first, but the context suggests otherwise. Presumably the intended meaning calls for the following:

Benjemin seemed scared to sign when Alex said if we land in some old farmer’s felid and kill his cow.

Proper nouns are also definite in the sense that they are only suitable when the reader already knows the character referred to; so Benjamin means ‘the person called Benjamin’, rather than ‘a person called Benjamin’. It is unhelpful to use a proper name when the reader does not know the person concerned.

To summarise, a noun phrase is definite if it contains a definite determiner (e.g. the/this plane) or a proper noun (e.g. Benjamin). This definiteness tells the reader to look for a character that is already known for one of two reasons:

  • because the character concerned is part of the reader’s general knowledge (e.g. the head teacher, the school), or
  • because the character is currently on stage.

In the second case the definite noun phrase normally refers back to an earlier noun phrase. Since the two noun phrases refer to the same character they are often built round the same noun and may even be identical – e.g. the plane … the plane. However this does not have to be so, and varying the noun is an important way to make writing more interesting and informative. For example, since plane is a synonym of machine, the second the plane could be replaced by the machine. KS3 writers should learn to exploit such lexical relationships.

Lexical relationships in anaphora and reference

If a later noun phrase refers to the same character as an earlier one, its head noun must obviously fit this character; for example, the man could refer back to Benjamin but the plane could not. Equally obviously, the simplest way to make sure that the two noun phrases are compatible is to give them exactly the same head noun:

Benjamin and Lewis went for a flight. Benjamin hated it but Lewis loved it.

Once upon a time an old man and an old woman owned two cows. The man took them to pasture every day, while the woman turned their milk into butter.

In some cases simple repetition is effective, but it quickly becomes monotonous if the chain is extended. Unless it is clearly intentional, it also gives the impression – rightly or wrongly – of a limited vocabulary. An alternative is to replace the earlier noun by a (rough) synonym whose meaning may be either broader or narrower than that of the word replaced:

Once upon a time an old king was very ill. The old man sent for his councillors. When they came before him, their ruler told them that he wanted to divide his kingdom.

Another kind of lexical relationship is provided by word families, which allow words of different classes to be linked to each other. For example, a noun may belong to the same family as a verb, so the two can belong to a single reference chain.

The king won an important battle. His victory made him the most powerful person in the whole country – indeed his power was greater than that of any ruler before him.

In this passage won and victory are lexically related as members of the same word family, and so are powerful and power.

Ellipsis in anaphora and reference

Ellipsis is the omission of words which can be recovered (‘understood’) from the context. For example, in the sample text we find:

Is uncle tried to foreds [force?] him.

In this sentence the ellipsis involves the infinitive which we expect after force (as in He forced us to work harder). In this example the ellipsis is unsuccessful because there is nothing for it to refer back to (force him to do what?), but ellipsis can be very effective in both providing an anaphoric link and also reducing the number of words. Here is a typical example:

They didn’t want to go into the water, and he didn’t force them .

In this sentence the ellipsis has removed the words to go into the water after force.

When is ellipsis possible?


English has a few words other than pronouns which can be substituted for other words, phrases or clauses. The most obvious examples are yes and no, as in:

Do you love me? Yes.

It is very clear that the meaning of yes is based on anaphora, in the sense that it refers back to a preceding item in the text – in this case, the sentence Do you love me? This is a very efficient example of anaphora: one word expresses the meaning of a whole sentence.

The main words that can be used in substitution are as follows:

  • the ‘pro-sentences’ yes and no.
  • the ‘pro-clauses’ so and not
    • I think so/not.
    • If so/not, …
  • the adverbs so and nor
    • I liked it, and so did John.
    • Mary didn’t like it, and nor did Jane;
    • I ate it, and John did so too.
  • the main verb intransitive do
    • Will it rain? It may do.
  • the common noun one
    • I’ve got a pet goldfish, and my brother’s got one too.
  • the adjective such, meaning ‘like that’
    • Yesterday he was mugged. Fortunately such things are rare in his life.

Apposition in anaphora and reference

Apposition is the traditional name for a very short reference chain in which two words or phrases that have the same reference are simply put next to each other within the same sentence.

his brother + Benjamin = his brother Benjamin

the two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis

Benjamin, an elderly farmer who was afraid of flying

Notice that unlike other reference chains, the second member does not need to be definite.

An apposition can usually be expanded by turning the second member into a relative clause who is/was …:

his brother, who was Benjamin

Benjamin, who was an elderly farmer who was afraid of flying

Some appositions can also be expanded by adding the abbreviation i.e.:

his brother, i.e. Benjamin,

the two brothers, i.e. Benjamin and Lewis,

A discussion of apposition would provide a good opportunity for teaching the difference between i.e (or that is) and e.g. (or for example or for instance):

Strictly speaking apposition does not contribute to textual coherence because it is only found within single sentences, but it is so similar to the other patterns that we have been considering that it cannot be left out of the discussion. It is also particularly important for KS3 writers as this seems to be the stage when stronger writers start to use it.

Complex reference chains

Splitting and merging

The ‘characters’ in a text may be not only individual people or things but also groups, so we often find that a group later splits into its individual members, or individuals later merge into a group:

  • splitting:
    • The two brothers showed very different reactions. Benjamin was frightened but Lewis was excited.
  • merging:
    • Benjamin was much more anxious than Lewis, but in the end they both enjoyed the flight.

The focus may alternate between the group and the individual members, which means that their reference chains intertwine in complicated ways.


Suppose we have just introduced an aeroplane as one of the ‘characters’ in a story, and we want to talk about its pilot. How do we do so? One possibility is to use a possessive pronoun in the usual way:

We saw the plane land and its pilot get out.

Another option, however, is simply to use the definite article:

We saw the plane land and the pilot get out.

This is an extension of the usual rules for definiteness because the pilot has not been referred to before; but it works because we know that a plane has a pilot so we can work out for ourselves which pilot the pilot refers to. This extended use of the can be called ‘bridging‘.

What is special about bridging is that it starts a new reference chain – in this example, the chain for the pilot – without introducing it ‘properly’ by an indefinite noun phrase. In other words, we take it for granted that ‘the plane had a pilot’, and continue as if this sentence had been expressed.

Since bridging is based on shared cultural knowledge it offers an interesting window into shared culture. For example, although bridging allows us to go straight from plane to pilot, it does not take us from plane to (say) man or leader.

Where is ellipsis possible?

Ellipsis is possible in some grammatical patterns but not in others. For example, think of the sentence:

I didn’t know whether it was raining, so I looked out of the window. It was.

In this case there is an ellipsis after the second was, where we could have said raining. What is it about this sentence that permits the ellipsis? If it is the form of raining – the fact that it is a present participle – we might expect the same to be true for every present participle, but it is not. In fact, ellipsis is possible after some verbs, including be, but not after verbs such as keep (though it is possible after keep on).

 It started raining in the morning and it kept raining all day.

 It started raining in the morning and it kept all day.

It started raining at 12 and it stopped at 1.

In other words, verbs stop does allow ellipsis, but keep doesn’t. Similarly, try does but attempt doesn’t, although they have the same meaning:

I knew I had to get up, but when I tried, I couldn’t.

I knew I had to get up, but when I attempted, I couldn’t.

Whether or not ellipsis is possible depends on the word that remains rather than on the one that is omitted.



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