In grammar, a cumulative sentence is an independent clause followed by a series of subordinate constructions (phrases or clauses) that gather details about a person, place, event, or idea. Contrast with a periodic sentence. Also called cumulative style or right-branching.
In Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, Francis and Bonniejean Christensen observe that after the main clause (which is often stated in general or abstract terms), "the forward movement of the cumulative 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."
In short, they conclude that "the mere form of the sentence generates ideas."
Examples and Observations
- "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)
- "I am with the Eskimos on the tundra who are running after the click-footed caribou, running sleepless and dazed for days, running spread out in scraggling lines across the glacier-ground hummocks and reindeer moss, in sight of the ocean, under the long-shadowed pale sun, running silent all night long."
(Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper & Row, 1974)
- "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)
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)
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 University. Press, 2008)