Cumulative form fosters a rich, lovely, rhythmic prose style.
[Nine years ago today, I started this blog. It will be on hiatus with today’s post, my 510th. I’m in a transition into semi-retirement, and preparing to teach this Fall semester at Radford University, in southwestern Virginia, while continuing a memoir workshop I’ve taught for the past two years at Virginia Tech. Thank you for reading!]
Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon. Plume: The Great Courses, 288 pp.
Brooks Landon wants you to write longer sentences. His belief in them goes against decades of teaching and advice. The dominant plain style prizes simplicity and clarity over elegance and eloquence. Specifically, Landon favors a type of long sentence—the cumulative, a detail-packed propulsive structure that enhances delivery of information, emotion, and rhythm. Such a sentence might impel you to savor it, or to stop and marvel at its maker’s skill.
Because cumulatives begin with a simple base sentence, they’re easy to understand even as they add modifying phrases that lengthen them—to 40 words, 60, even 100 and more. Here’s a fun one by Landon himself, from his How to Build Great Sentences, and I’ll underline the base sentence:
He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.
I bet you didn’t see the dead body coming, did you? Wouldn’t that sentence be a great opening to a murder mystery? It possesses much movement and suspense because the reader knows something is coming at the end—the sentence itself unfolding as a mini-story. You can also move the simple base clause deeper and deeper into the sentence until it gets to the very end, with all the modifying phrases coming before. Notice what a different effect this version of Landon’s sentence conveys:
His shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk, he drove the car carefully.
That isn’t as dramatic, of course, because it ends on such a low-key point. (And with its ostensible meaning pushed to the very end, I suppose it has become a periodic sentence.) But it might work as the resonant, dying-fall ending line for a book. Here’s a much simpler cumulative sentence by Annie Dillard, from her memoir An American Childhood, about being pursued by a man whose car she and her friends hit with a snowball:
He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets.
William Faulkner was known for his very long sentences—one in his novel Absalom, Absalom is 1,287 words, supposedly the longest correctly punctuated sentence in English—and his example below, from his story “Barn Burning,” is longer than Dillard’s. There’s an extra phrase, and each phrase is longer. But Faulkner’s sentence is equally clear because of how the simple base sentence sets it up:
His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horsefly, his voice still without heat or anger.
Landon’s critique of plain writing traces to a polymath’s obscure observation in 1946.Brooks Landon teaches a popular class in prose style at the University of Iowa; with his focus on the sentence, and especially on the unique properties and benefits of cumulative form, he’s among a handful of distinguished holdouts against the plain style. Their research into what genius writers and highly skilled professional wordsmiths often do began with an obscure 1946 essay, “The Craft of Writing,” by John Erskine.
Erskine was a novelist, pianist, and composer who founded an honors course at Columbia University that led to the Great Books movement. He also achieved some attention for his essay “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent,” delivered at Amherst College on the eve of World War I, which elaborates on his notion of teaching the classics; it became the title essay his collection that’s still in print. In “The Craft of Writing,” Erskine observes that composing is a process of addition, not subtraction; he says addition clarifies one’s meaning—even though grammar wrongly makes us think that the noun is a sentence’s most important element, since it can stand alone.
A reader of this otherwise forgettable essay, collected in Twentieth Century English, was Francis Christensen, an English professor at the University of Southern California. He saw, in syntactical terms, exactly what Erskine meant in his aside, and he got its rhetorical implications. Christensen’s subsequent campaign made him the “father of the cumulative sentence.” Many noted his 1963 essay “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence,” published in College Composition and Communication; his work culminated in 1967 in The Christensen Rhetoric Program for teachers (out of print since the late 1980s). He saw the cumulative sentence as a way to move student writers from their threadbare, staccato prose to a richer, flowing style. He called cumulatives “generative” because their structure spurs writers to move beyond simple subject-verb clauses, accumulating meaning through phrases that add details, explanation, and reflection. And with each new phrase, the sentence takes another step forward, urging readers along with it.
What you wish to say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun. The noun is only a grappling iron to hitch your mind to the reader’s. The noun by itself adds nothing to the reader’s information; it is the name of something he knows already, and if he does not know it, you cannot do business with him. The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as a base on which meaning will rise. The modifier is the essential part of any sentence.
Christensen’s work changed writing instruction for a while in the 1960s and ’70s. Many high school students and college freshmen were taught to improve their writing by imitating masterful long sentences and by combining short sentences to make compound and complex ones. Although this worked, the movement crashed under an academic counter-attack in the 1980s. Landon touches on the reasons, and cites an elegiac essay, “The Erasure of the Sentence,” by Robert J. Connors. Connors essentially says that having students imitate wasn’t sexy enough to prevail in academe. Christensen’s methods, he says, were seen as mechanistic, “lore-based,” and lacking in theory.
The stunning irony, to any practitioner reading about this academic dispute, is that writers, including literary artists, have always learned by imitation. In fact, all artists have learned that way through the ages: imitate what you love and then receive opinions from other makers. In writing classes, and certainly in creative writing workshops, the precocious stars are those who, having fallen in love with words, sentences, and stories long before, have already spent years informally studying them. In swimming through libraries, such writers absorbed structures and rhythms that help prose sing or pack a punch.
While many creative writing teachers lack pedagogical training, and may not teach imitation systematically or even overtly, their classes are actually based on immersion and imitation. Thus their indirect instruction works. Of course freshman composition aims to teach eighteen-year-olds to write acceptable expository prose. Not to produce “creative” or even professional writers, but to make better citizen writers. Just giving them practice helps, as does the widespread use of peer workshopping, since they also learn from each other’s struggles.
I gather there’s currently a resurgence of interest among rhetoric and composition experts in teaching writing by focusing on sentences. Some of these scholars are also teaching creative nonfiction, attracted to a burgeoning genre that’s ablaze with innovation, fed as it is by classical essays, by dramatized personal essays and memoirs, by literary journalism and poetry. Such rhetoricians tend to feel they possess the tools to teach nonfiction writing, at least at the sentence level, better and faster than muzzy “creative writers” can. That seems demonstrably true of Landon.
Gesturing to the writer, cumulative sentences deepen the authorial persona.
Chapter Five of Building Better Sentences, “The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax,” drills further into their structure. Upon finishing it, on Page 67, you might wonder how Landon will fill his book’s remaining pages—ten subsequent chapters. Indeed, you have the gist of his point and grasp the reason for his passion. But Landon continues: to teach more about cumulatives; to consider a few other sentence patterns; to offer further insights into balance, suspense, and the rhetorical effects of using two examples, or three, or four (and more).In other words, everything after Chapter Five is elaboration—and more nitty gritty for actual writers, who should draw near and study. Thankfully, Landon’s prose is elegant and accessible. He uses as few grammatical terms as possible. This is a study of prose effects and how to achieve them—of rhetoric, that is, not of grammar per se. He deftly cites other contemporary and past theorists, distilling their thought and giving motivated teachers and writers a way to locate and learn from them as well.
For me, as a memoirist, a fascinating corollary aspect of Building Better Sentences is Landon’s notion of what cumulative sentences imply about the writer:
When a sentence works like a mini-narrative, telling a kind of story that has a surprise ending, I think it will almost always catch a reader’s attention and remind the reader of the creative mind that crafted that sentence, and that’s one of the functions of style: to remind us of the mind behind the sentences we read.
In contrast, simple and compound sentences that lack detail and explanation emphasize the predicate—everything after the noun; the action the noun points to: “His house burned down.” They don’t subtly gesture to the writer trying to make sense and help us make sense of a situation. Landon explains:
Highly predicative prose isn’t long on explanations. It has a kind of take-it-or-leave-it quality. This is macho-speak that bluntly posits information without reflecting upon it or elaborating it . . . It’s a style Will Strunk would be hard-pressed to criticize, although I doubt he ever wanted any of his students to write exactly this way. . . .
The highly predicative style seems to me to introduce a mind that is amazingly unreflective, almost anesthetized, or so focused on one purpose that it simply refuses to think about anything else or consider alternative points of view.
Landon’s reference to Cornell University Professor Strunk reminds us of The Elements of Style, the apparently immortal guide by him and his student E.B. White. Landon treats the book kindly, although it’s an exemplar of and an advocate for plain style. Aimed at beginning writers, remember, The Elements of Style is a fine and bracing brief for clarity of thought and expression. And professional writers do discover the beauty of simple declarative sentences, after all. They’re always looking for places to use them. They also, of course, make sentences of other lengths and patterns.
In fact, Landon cites a wonderful cumulative by E.B. White himself, from his celebrated essay “Once More to the Lake“:
We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head.
I don’t entirely agree with Landon about plain style’s flaws in fiction—that subject is very complex, and his two examples poorly support his contention. Yet his overall notion, based on his preference for depth of inquiry, seems valid. I’m totally on board with his championing of the cumulative sentence and with its implications for nonfiction. Especially when blended with simple and compound sentences, cumulatives offer many options for rhythmic variety and emphasis. The cumulative form “urges the writer to give more information to the reader, and it suggests to the reader that the writer is doing her or his best to make things as clear and as satisfying as possible,” Landon writes. “This is the syntax that sends the signal that the writer is . . . trying harder than other writers.”Again, in gesturing to the person making the sentences, cumulatives are another facet of persona. And in nonfiction, persona is foundational, especially the writer’s “now,” which among other things takes the curse off plodding chronological plots and provides enriching contrast to past events. I doubt most rhetoric-composition teachers are fully aware of the extent to which persona is an endless topic of conversation in creative nonfiction.
In fiction, we both suspend disbelief and, as Landon notes, appreciate that someone is providing the story. In memoirs, especially, we rely on authors to help us negotiate two personas, the writer’s and the writer’s past self. We reflexively judge both. We can accept almost any past indiscretion if the person telling the story manages to be acceptable and to help us understand, empathize with, or forgive the writer’s past self.
Consider one of my favorite cumulative sentences, from Leslie Rubinkowski’s “Funeral,” published by River Teeth in 2005. Lovely, suspensive, and wonderfully punctuated, the sentence helps open the essay and, at the same time, it launches Rubinkowski’s encounter with her past self; her cumulative is preceded and set up by a simpler sentence:
Gertie is my favorite aunt, her apartment is four miles from my house, and I haven’t seen her in twelve years. I got lost trying to find her, so lost that the fifteen-minute drive stretched to an hour, so lost that I navigated one-way tubercular streets with a map across my knees before I found the Doughboy guarding Lawrenceville—Penn bends into Butler, I knew that, I didn’t really forget—and I have to force myself not to run to her when I see her across the room: my sweet Aunt Gert in her fawn-colored suit with satin lapels and rhinestone angel pin, her hair, as ever, upswept and immaculate; and I lean in to touch her arm and study the fine familiar fuzz on her cheeks, the broader, softer version of my own jaw line, and the rafts of pink roses that cover her coffin and climb the walls.
Underscoring that style and content ultimately are inseparable, here’s a sentence cited by Landon, an incredibly fast and cinematic one by Ernest Hemingway, from In Our Time:
George was coming down in the telemark position, kneeling, one leg forward and bent, the other trailing, his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow, and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.
In contrast, here’s a slowly moving cumulative sentence, which Landon took from the novel Memento Mori by Muriel Spark—she conveys in rhythm as well as words a man’s uneasy, interminable encounter with an ancient woman:
He went to speak to Mrs. Bean, tiny among the pillows, her small toothless mouth open like an “O,” her skin stretched thin and white over her bones, her huge eye-sockets and eyes in a fixed, infant-like stare, and her sparse white hair short and straggling over her brow.
Finally, here’s a cumulative sentence I wrote in college, at age 21, in essay about a farmer I’d worked for:
The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.
Now mine doesn’t accumulate much, with only one phrase after the base sentence—I remember trying to add another and giving up. But I felt that the poetic and portentous tone I’d hit was perfect—full of movement and mystery, gravid with implication.
In its simplicity, in any case, my sentence illuminates why cumulatives are sometimes called “loose” sentences, which likens the phrases tacked onto base clauses to wobbly boxcars. Without the sturdy engine of the simple sentence pulling them forward, they’d uselessly derail. Landon dislikes the term “loose sentence” for that prejudicial connotation; he feels it has privileged the less useful periodic sentence. The latter structure relies on an introductory phrase and forces the reader to wait until the end of the sentence for its meaning. For example: “In spite of scorching heat and brutal humidity, the game continued.” Such a form is obviously less suited to the immediately understandable accumulation that Landon favors.
I wrote the great sentence of my twenties by “instinct,” which is to say by imitation. Under the influence of Hemingway, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor—I was a southern boy—that sentence materialized upon my typewriter’s platen. As I’ve noted, immersion’s still literature’s approved apprenticeship. Usually the results are credited to individual talent, however, obscuring the way craft is acquired in a monkey-see, monkey-do process. As one matures, learning becomes steadily more focused and overt, more self-prescribed and self-directed.
Now one of the top writing manuals in my library, Building Great Sentences is the most useful study of the sentence I’ve ever read. I’ll write more and better cumulative sentences after reading it. Landon benefits writers, teachers, and rhetoricians in explaining his obsession with cumulatives, spotlighting their relative simplicity, their flowing beauty, their subtle but steady reassurance about the writer, and their effectiveness in carrying rhythm, in conveying information and emotion, and in providing aesthetic pleasure.
[Building Great Sentences is the basis of Brooks Landon’s Great Courses audio or video proprietary class, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” and some of his lectures, as the above, can be sampled on YouTube. For a richly cumulative style in fiction, Landon recommends Don DeLillo’s wonderful New Yorker short story, “Midnight in Dostoevsky.”]