Organization and Consistency
of Tense, Number, and Person

Two other elements of writing that greatly contribute to coherence are organization and the avoidance of shifts in tense, number, and person. Both of these elements are covered at length in other lessons. (For more information on organization, refer to the lessons titled “Organizing the Structure of a Paper” and “Strengthening Thesis, Introduction, and Organization.” For more information on tense, number, and person, refer to the lessons titled “Editing for Proper Voice, Tense, and Syntax”; “Editing for Subject-Verb Agreement”; and “Editing for Pronoun Reference and Agreement.”)

An important point to remember is that just because all sentences in a paragraph are about the same topic does not mean that the paragraph is coherent. Before transitional words and phrases can connect the sentences of a paragraph, the sentences have to be organized in a reasonable way. Some possibilities for organization are chronological order, spatial order (as though someone is looking at a person, object, or scene), emphasis order (specific to general or general to specific), or importance order (more to less important or most to least important).

Consistency of verb tense, number, and person is key to maintaining coherence in your writing and helping a reader understand what you’re writing. Switching between present and past tenses, for example, is disconcerting and detracts from the message of the writing itself. Likewise, randomly shifting between the singular and plural forms of a noun—such as using “teacher” in one sentence and “teachers” in the next—can disrupt a reader’s focus.

And a common coherence problem arises when a writer slips from first person (I) or third person (he, she, it) into the ubiquitous second person (you). A writer should use “you” only when addressing the actual reader.