Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 18(d)

Lexical Cohesion

To Halliday, ‘lexical cohesion comes about through the selection of [lexical] items that are related in some way to those that have gone before’ (p. 310, 330). More specifically, lexical cohesion can be achieved through one of these means below. Do note that in the third edition of Introduction to Functional Grammar, Halliday and Mattthiessen divide up cohesion into paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, with collocation being the only syntagmatic category, and synonymy treated separately from hyponymy and meronymy, and not together under the more general category of synonymy (pp. 570—8). The choice is yours: you can either continue to treat hyponymy and meronymy as being generally connected to synonymy, or follow the newer configuration in the third edition of the book.

  1. Repetition
  2. Synonymy
  3. Collocation.


REPETITION, which involves the reiteration of a lexical item, is the simplest form of lexical cohesion. Halliday’s example here is quite memorable:

Algy met a bear. The bear was bulgy

The lexical item which contributes to cohesion here is of course the word 'bear' (not Algy and bulgy!).


The next form of lexical cohesion involves the use of lexical items which are in some sense synonymous. The examples of SYNONYMY given by Halliday are the related words 'sound'/'noise' and 'cavalry'/'horses' in the shortened extract below:

. . . he was startled by a noise from behind him. It was the noise of trotting horses . . . . The sound of the cavalry grew rapidly nearer...


There may either be identity of reference or no identity of reference in Halliday’s conception of synonymy as a contributing factor to lexical cohesion.

Identity of reference

In synonymy which involves identity of reference, we refer either to synonyms in the usual sense of the word, or to lexical items which are related in meaning to their referents by virtue of being at a higher level of generality.

The usual sense of the word synonym should be clear to most of you. The word 'bachelor' and the phrase 'single male', for example, are synonymous; so are the words leisurely and relaxed in ‘He walked in a leisurely way’ and ‘He walked in a relaxed way’.

Halliday also regards as synonymous meanings which are at a higher level of generality. A concept which is of a higher level of generality is also known as a superordinate concept, whereas that which is at a lower level is known as a subordinate concept. We can see how these super- and sub-ordinate concepts are related in Halliday’s example of ‘blackbirds ? birds ? creatures ? they’, which can be represented in the diagram below,

As we can see, they1 is superordinate to 'creatures', which is in turn superordinate to 'birds', and which is finally superordinate to 'blackbirds'. Any of these superordinate concepts may be used to refer to 'blackbirds'; each of them will be regarded as synonymous to 'blackbirds'.

In the analysis of lexical items which have identity of reference, the concept of synonymy, according to Halliday, can also apply to words which do not belong to the same word class, as in 'cheered' and 'applause' in ‘Everyone cheered. The leader acknowledged the applause’; and 'cried' and 'tears' in ‘I wish I hadn’t cried so much! I shall be punished for it... by being drowned in my own tears!’2

No Identity of Reference

In synonymy with no identity of reference, we refer either to hyponymy, where a cohesive relationship is established between a general (superordinate) concept and (usually more than one) specific (or subordinate) concepts;3 or to meronymy, where a cohesive relationship is established between a concept and its parts. We are dealing with a hyponymous relationship when a cohesive linkage is established between ‘trees’ and oak, pine, elm etc. as in figure a) below; and with meronymy where there is a cohesive relationship established between trunk, branch, leaf etc and ‘tree’ as in figure b) below:

Hyponymy and meronymy are often regarded as figures of speech or tropes, where they are collectively classified under synecdoche, or more generally, under metonymy.


In the analysis of synonymy, we finally have antonymy, where a cohesive semantic linkage is established between lexical items of opposite meanings.


The final form of lexical cohesion is COLLOCATION. Halliday defines collocation as the tendency of certain lexical items to co-occur. Halliday’s illustration of collocation through the example of the limerick ‘A little fat man of Bombay’ is both typical and memorable:

        A little fat man of Bombay
        Was smoking one very hot day.
            But a bird called a snipe
            Flew away with his pipe,
        Which vexed the fat man of Bombay.

Halliday notes here that there is ‘a strong collocational bond between smoke and pipe’ in the above poem.

Do not get too worried if you cannot always make an exact distinction between collocation and some examples of synonymy. Halliday notes that ‘even where there is a relation of synonymy between lexical items, their cohesive effect tends to depend more on collocation, a simple tendency to co-occur’ (p. 313, 333, 577). So the two types of lexical cohesion do tend to overlap.


1. Notice that there is an overlap here: 'they' and 'blackbirds' can also be analysed in terms of referential cohesion. Back.
2. Again here, there seems to be an overlap, although this time, it is within lexical cohesion itself: words such as 'cheered' and 'applause' or 'cried' and 'tears' can also be treated as collocative. Back.

Next Workshop Notes.

Previous Workshop Notes.

Back to Homepage: EL3221.

© 2005-17.  
Last revised: 15 May 2017