Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design

Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design

Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design

Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design

Synopsis

There is a need for general theoretical principles describing/explaining effective design -- those which demonstrate "unity" and enhance comprehension and usability. Theories of cohesion from linguistics and of comprehension in psychology are likely sources of such general principles. Unfortunately, linguistic approaches to discourse unity have focused exclusively on semantic elements such as synonymy or anaphora, and have ignored other linguistic elements such as syntactic parallelism and phonological alliteration. They have also overlooked the non-linguistic elements -- visual factors such as typography or color, and auditory components such as pitch or duration. In addition, linguistic approaches have met with criticism because they have failed to explain the relationship between semantic cohesive elements and coherence. On the other hand, psychological approaches to discourse comprehension have considered the impact of a wider range of discourse elements -- typographical cuing of key terms to enhance comprehension -- but have failed to provide general theoretical explanations for such observations. This volume uses Gestalt theory to provide general principles for predicting one aspect of coherence -- that of continuity -- across the entire range of discourse elements, and also to outline the relationship between cohesion and coherence. The theoretical core of this book argues that the cognitive principles that explain why humans "sense" unity in a succession of sounds (a whole musical piece) or in a configuration of visual shapes (a complete object) are the basis of principles which explain why we "sense" unity in oral, written, and electronically produced documents.

Excerpt

'Sense' has two senses, one perceptual and the other linguistic. We have tried to take care of them both, for we feel the two are not as different as they are sometimes made out to be.

-- Miller and Johnson-Laird (1976, p. vi)

The quote above from the preface of Miller and Johnson-Laird's landmark book, Language and Perception, led me to formulate the theoretical core of this book -- that the cognitive principles which explain why humans 'sense' unity in a succession of sounds (which therefore constitute a whole musical piece) or in a configuration of visual shapes (which therefore constitute a whole object) are the basis of principles that explain why we 'sense' unity in a string of sentences or a series of computer screens (which therefore constitute a whole text or discourse). More specifically, I will argue that one aspect of discourse coherence, continuity, is analogous to visual and auditory unity, as studied by the Gestalt school of psychologists. in addition, I argue that Gestalt principles like proximity and similarity describe how cohesion is produced through the use of the full range of discourse elements (e.g., from white space and typography to beeps and pauses to parallel syntax to synonymous lexical items and deictic terms). Thus, I believe cohesion produces continuity, one type of coherence, in discourse. More generally, then, it is my premise in this book that humans extend the use of cognitive perceptual principles like that of proximity, originally used in response to interaction with visual and auditory phenomena, to the more complex, relatively latedeveloping cognitive task of discourse comprehension and production.

The notion that discourse unity might somehow be analogous to auditory and visual perceptions of unity appealed to me mainly because of my practical . . .

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