It’s a rare item of writing craft that finds me introducing the cumulative sentence.
I had a “progressive” education, which meant I wasn’t taught grammar and punctuation or any of the glue that binds language together. I’ve had to discover it for myself. That goes for the cumulative sentence. Stick with me, it’s not that technical. You might even like it.
Put simply a cumulative sentence consists of a base clause plus supplementary ideas or thoughts. These are often called free modifiers; they give more information to make the base idea more powerful or more vivid.
Some writers claim the cumulative sentence mimics the human mind’s stream of consciousness. It can enable a slow build of description, a build of tension, of thought, argument or image.
I’m already using cumulative sentences – and breaking some grammar rules along the way.
Some teachers state that good writing is periodic, the best sentences build to a point at the end. In modern fiction, the tendency is to simplify; complete the sentence, move on. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that.
The so-called Loose Style has license to be more expansive.
Ancient Made Modern
If you’re wondering, this was formalised in Francis Christensen’s Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence (1967)
Generative rhetoric is a an approach to either generate ideas or flesh out existing ideas. The cumulative sentence is a tool which is the blankest of blank forms that you then fill out with content. One idea or image slowly builds with detail.
If you are used to any kind of writing built by addition, block by block, the idea at first seems strange. In most European languages, we’re accustomed to a sentence order that delays the main clause until the end. We finish on a punchline, or reveal.
But if you’re used to constructing logical arguments, giving speeches or teaching a subject through a set of progressions, the cumulative sentence is not a huge leap.
Vini, Vidi, Vici
Take Julius Caesar’s famous quote:
‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’
Here’s a masterpiece of a cumulative sentence from antiquity. Note he didn’t write:
‘I came, and I saw, then I conquered.’
Removing the conjunctions shortens and dramatises the sentence. It has narrative drive. It finishes on conquest, a powerful verb that implies inevitability.
I may be an outlier, but I write cumulative sentences all the time. Maybe it’s the way I work up a base idea and try to turn it into meaningful prose. With the base idea, the free modifiers come more often from free-writing my way out of trouble. And trying to beat the clock.
Here’s a couple of random examples:
‘The green vase sat on the table, a gaudy reminder of a Summer spent in flea markets, scouring for bargains, finding mostly junk.’
It’s a sentence that flows from the base clause:
‘…the green vase sat on the table…’ onto the free modifiers.
‘…a gaudy reminder…’ sets the tone and opinion of the vase.
‘…of a Summer spent in flea markets…’ this could be a good or bad experience.
‘…scouring for bargains…’ that has some frison of hope and curiosity
‘…finding mostly junk…’ reflects the disappointment of the gaudy green vase at the beginning.
Add a second cumulative sentence to build the drama:
‘Shelley hated that vase, squat, ugly, the colour of a murky pond on an overcast day.’
There’s a strong emotion, hate from the Shelley character. We suspect the vase isn’t hers. More strong opinions of the green vase; ‘squat’ and ‘ugly’ topped by a stacked metaphor ‘…the colour of a murky pond on an overcast day.’
Shelly really doesn’t like this vase.
Having established a tone and pattern with those sentences, you can then finish with a dramatic conclusion, perhaps a hint of rebellion and violence, illuminating the character and her state of mind.
‘The thought of that vase suffering an ‘accident’ thrilled her for a moment.’
See what I did in the explanation above? I outlined it with a cumulative sentence.
Looking at the whole paragraph:
The green vase sat on the table, a gaudy reminder of a Summer spent in flea markets, scouring for bargains, finding mostly junk. Shelley hated that vase, squat, ugly, the colour of a murky pond on an overcast day. The thought of that vase suffering an ‘accident’ thrilled her for a moment.
Two cumulative sentences, build on the green vase, topped of with a punchy, single clause sentence full of drama. Ultimately it’s not about the green vase at all, but abut Shelley’s state of mind.
Building the Story
I have no idea who ‘Shelley’ is, but by the end, the green vase is a proxy for the vase’s owner, hinting at a difficult relationship.
The cumulative sentence is a distinct choice of writing style. It’s not something you just drift into, not unless you have the soul of a poet.
The cumulative sentence appears in all genres. Hard-boiled crime typically has short, punchy sentences, accelerating the pace and driving the narrative. But even crime writers use cumulative sentences to add the stylistic flourishes of similes and description.