In Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, Francis and Bonniejean Christensen observe that the main clause of a cumulative sentence "is likely to be stated in general or abstract or plural terms. With the main clause stated, the forward movement of the sentence stops, the writer shifts down to the lower level of generalization or abstraction or to singular terms, and goes back over the same ground at this lower level. . . . Thus the mere form of the sentence generates ideas." (See Examples and Observations, below.)
- Generative Rhetoric
- Cumulative Sentences in "The Falls" by George Saunders
- The Freight-Train Style
- Loose Sentence
- Running Style
- The Running Style in Lewis Thomas's "On Cloning"
- What Is a Sentence?
Examples and Observations:
- "I write this at a wide desk in a pine shed as I always do these recent years, in this life I pray will last, while the summer sun closes the sky to Orion and to all the other winter stars over my roof."
(Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, 1987)
- "He dipped his hands in the bichloride solution and shook them--a quick shake, fingers down, like the fingers of a pianist above the keys."
(Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith, 1925)
- "The radiators put out lots of heat, too much, in fact, and old-fashioned sounds and smells came with it, exhalations of the matter that composes our own mortality, and reminiscent of the intimate gases we all diffuse."
(Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak. William Morrow, 1987)
- "Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine."
(Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm. Harper & Row, 1977)
- "The unwieldy provision carts, draught horses, and heavily armed knights kept the advance down to nine miles a day, the huge horde moving in three parallel columns, cutting broad highways of litter and devastation through an already abandoned countryside, many of the adventurers now traveling on foot, having sold their horses for bread or having slaughtered them for meat."
(John Gardner, Life and Times of Chaucer. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977)
- "The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves."
(Joan Didion, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)
- "He wept silently, after the custom of shamed and angry men, so that when the pursuit party came tumbling, pounding, scrabbling down the trail, past the fold in which he and Hillel stood concealed, he could hear the creak and rattle of their leather armor with its scales of horn; and when the Arsiyah returned, just before daybreak, at the very hour when all of creation seemed to fall silent as if fighting off tears, Zelikman could hear the rumbling of the men's bellies and the grit in their eyelids and the hollowness of failure sounding in their chests."
(Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure. Del Ray, 2007)
Setting a Scene With Cumulative Sentences
The cumulative sentence is particularly good for setting a scene or for panning, as with a camera, a place or critical moment, a journey or a remembered life, in a way not dissimilar to the run-on. It is another kind of--potentially endless and half-wild--list. . . .
And here is this writer Kent Haruf, writing a cumulative sentence, opening his novel with it, panning the smalltown western landscape of his story:
Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. (Kent Haruf, Plainsong)(Mark Tredinnick, Writing Well. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008)
"Llanblethian hangs pleasantly, with its white cottages, and orchard and other trees, on the western slope of a green hill; looking far and wide over green meadows and little or bigger hills, in the pleasant plain of Glamorgan; a short mile to the south of Cowbridge, to which smart little town it is properly a kind of suburb."
(Thomas Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling, 1851)
Cumulative Sentences Defined and Illustrated
"The typical sentence of modern English, the kind we can best spend our efforts trying to write, is what we will call the cumulative sentence. The main or base clause, which may or may not have sentence modifiers like this before or within it, advances the discussion or the narrative. The other additions, placed after it, move backward (as in this sentence), to modify the statement of the base clause or more often to explain it or add examples or details to it, so that the sentence has a flowing and ebbing movement, advancing to a new position and then pausing to consolidate it."
(Francis Christensen and Bonniejean Christensen, A New Rhetoric. Harper & Row, 1976)
Also Known As: cumulative style, right-branching