Sentence & Syntax: Cumulative Setences

Building Sentences

I love the cumulative sentence. I first came across the idea in a great book (and great series audio course) called Building Great Sentence by University of Iowa Professor Brook Landon.

I’m no Ernest Hemingway or Oscar Wilde. I can’t write short and terse or short and witty, so I play to my strengths, writing sentences with depth and detail, zooming in for clarify or sweeping out for a wide shot, creating cinematic-style scenes that pulse with hyper-reality.

Everything about the cumulative sentence works for me.  It fits my worldview and gives me something I can work on instead of the ever vague, “write concise sentences with strong verbs” or the impossible “remove all instances of the word ‘that’” or the Shrunk and White battle cry, “omit needless words.”

These tasks are somehow too big for me, too abstract, making them impossible to measure or practice. They don’t make me a better writer, either.

Okay, maybe they make me a better editor, forcing me to scrutinize every word choice, but they don’t make my writing better the first time around. Taken out of context and to extremes, advice like that mentioned about can fuzzy up the narrative picture, leaving the writing a rapid-fire staccato of short sentences.

So, what is a cumulative sentence?

Glad you asked! It is a sentence with a base clause joined by any number of free modifying phrases, tacked on to the front, middle, or end of the base clause, building a sentence the way a mason builds a house, brick by brick.  The sentence can then move forward in either space or time, creating living sequences that dance and pulse and have strong rhythmic beats.          

The girl danced, her feet moving faster than the eye could follow, her head thrown back in ecstatic joy.
Her feet moving faster than the eye could follow, the girl danced, her head thrown back in ecstatic joy.
Her feet moving faster than the eye could follow, her head thrown back in estatic joy, the girl danced.

Cumulative sentences work well because they are easy to follow and they add texture and detail. They’re easy to construct and instantly make your sentences better. They are also endless flexible. I could have added a dozen more free modifying phrases to this sentence and it would have still flowed beautifully. This method of sentence craft blends seamlessly with the principles of deliberate practice and I cannot recommend Building Great Sentences more, in fact, consider it a textbook for this section.

Types of cumulative sentences:

Coordinate 

Coordinate sentences are your basic, everyday cumulative sentence. They work like the example above and are connected together like cars on a train—all of the modifying phrases point back to the base clause, providing more details and precision. 

The phone rang, the sound high and shrill, emanating outward from the side table, over-loud in the empty bedroom.

Subordinate

Subordinate sentences are more like building blocks, each phrase stacked on top of the next, related in some way.

The phone rang, the sound high and shrill, whiny like the voice of a bratty kid, a kid hopped up on candy and sugar.

Summary

 These sentences are exactly what they say on the tin—the final phrase summarizes all the phrases that have come before it.

The chocolate melted, pooled on the braille of my tongue, bittersweet and smooth, sending a shiver through my body, the overall experience a tiny trip to heaven.

*The summary sentence is also a good place to add simile and metaphor to sentences. More on this later…

Suspensive (Least important fact to most important)

These types of sentences work well when there is a surprise ending. Here is an example that is also the first sentence of White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Early in the morning, late in the century, Crinklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours, January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer, facedown on the steering wheel, hoping that judgment would not be too heavy upon him. (White Teeth, Zadie Smith, 2000).

There are a thousand ways to use and combine these techniques in ways that create sentences that sing and swing with texture and nuance.

*Another note about those lovely adverbs. They can add a seductive one-note beat to the rhythm of cumulative sentences, giving them a “whole note” pause in front of, in between, or after longer phrases.