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Lessons on Cohesion Part I: The Known-New Contract

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Adapted from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (7th ed.)


Take a look at the following sentence:

(a) Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space.

Which of the sentences below should follow the one above?

(b) The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole.
(c) A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

Sentence (c) begins where sentence (a) left off: with black holes. While reading, often we feel that sentences are more cohesive if they begin with what is known to the reader (e.g., “black holes” from the previous sentence) and end with what is new (e.g., “the collapse of a dead star”). This “known-new” contract gives us a sense of flow in our writing. This sense of flow comes naturally when we tell stories. Notice in this short story how the words or phrases in bold repeat information from the preceding sentence:

Yesterday, Ronny took me to a Dave Matthews concert in Phoenix. When we got to Sun Devil Stadium, he realized that he had left the tickets back in Tucson, so he drove back to get them. While he was gone, I sat on the curb next to some scalpers. One of them started hitting on me, so I flirted with him for a while to see if I could get free tickets.

You get the idea. It is important to note, finally, that not all sentences can be made cohesive by the known-new contract. Writers can use transitional phrases, pronouns, and effective repetition to add cohesion as well.


1. Revise the following sentences according to the known-new contract.

a. In 2004, Jamie Foxx won an Academy Award for his performance as Ray Charles. Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington are the only other African American men who have received Academy Awards for Best Actor besides Foxx.
b. In 1875, the U. S. Army forced the Chiricahua Indians onto the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona. The Apache warrior Geronimo led a group of followers off the reservation and into Mexico in protest and because the land was so arid.

2. Practice the known-new contract in a passage of your own writing.