If you’re unsure what a cumulative sentence is, you’re in the right place.
You’ve read them countless times and probably used them in your own writing without even knowing it.
In this post, we’ll:
- Define a cumulative sentence and provide examples.
- Show you how and why cumulative sentences make your writing shine.
- Provide friendly pointers on how to use them to enhance your writing…
Ready to add some punch to your writing? Let’s go.
What is the Definition of a Cumulative Sentence?
A cumulative sentence is also known as a loose sentence.
Cumulative sentences are an accumulation of two or more clauses or phrases. They include;
- The main idea or independent clause, meaning it’s complete and stands on its own.
- One or more subordinate clauses modify or provide additional information about the person, place, idea, or event.
Putting Together a Cumulative Sentence
For the following examples, we’ll bold the main clause, which includes the sentence’s subject. Whatever remains are subordinate phrases and should modify the sentence’s main idea.
Let’s illustrate a cumulative sentence using a passage from a famous American writer…
Joan Didion: Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream
“The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway, but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and 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.”
Notice that the base clause is a sentence unto itself, with San Bernardino Valley as the subject. The subordinate, modifying clauses come in behind it, stopping the main clause’s forward momentum.
Joan Didion uses short and long phrases dotted with adjectives instead of clunking down consecutive descriptive sentences after the independent clause. This provides a complete picture of how the San Bernardino Valley is strangely out of California’s character.
It’s a super-long sentence but perfectly understandable because it gives a more relaxed and literary style. She creates a balanced sentence.
Cumulative sentences enhance your writing, especially when writing descriptively.
Care to see it used elsewhere? Let’s look at a few more examples…
Cumulative Sentence Examples to Help Make Your Writing Shine
When you write cumulative sentences skillfully, reading becomes a joy. Let’s see how they’re used in Literature, Poetry, and Pop Culture.
Cumulative Sentences in Literature
1. Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure (Del Ray, 2007)
“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…”
2. Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith (1925)
“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.”
3. Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper & Row, 1974)
“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.”
4. John Gardner: Life and Times of Chaucer (Alfred A. Knopf, 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 travelling on foot, having sold their horses for bread or having slaughtered them for meat.”
Cumulative Sentences in Poetry
5. Anne Sexton: All My Pretty Ones
“This is the yellow scrapbook that you began
the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly
as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran
the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me
and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went
down and recent years where you went flush on war.”
6. Anonymous: Beowulf (Modern English translation by Frances B. Gummere)
“Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.”
7. Langston Hughes: The Weary Blues
“Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light…”
Cumulative Sentences from Pop Culture
8. Eminem: Guts over Fear
“…Ever since I came along
From the day the song called “Hi! My Name Is” dropped…”
9. From “Ozark” (Netflix)
“What do you do, Martin, when the bride who took your breath away, becomes the bride who makes you hold your breath in terror?”
10. Keith Urban: You’ll Think of Me
“I woke up early this morning around 4 a.m.
With the moon shining bright as headlights on the interstate…”
Helpful Tips and Functions of Cumulative Sentences
You might not realize it, but I’m willing to bet you’ve already worked a few cumulative sentences into your writing.
Here are a few more tips to make this lesson complete.
Tips for Writing a Better Cumulative Sentence
The 2-clause structure of a cumulative sentence makes things easy for building great sentences.
Remember, one main independent clause is followed by a dependent clause that illustrates, describes, or fleshes out the idea in detail.
As you’ve already seen, writers of all genres — fiction and nonfiction — can and will use this sentence form.
Getting it right is just a matter of practicing while keeping a few tips in mind…
- Use examples from great writers as models for your work.
- Use a grammar-checker to ensure you’re not stretching things out too much (run-on sentences). Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, and ProWritingAid can help.
- Read your work aloud to someone else. Furrowed brows say you’ve lost them, so make sure your modifying clauses aren’t so long that your main idea is lost in a random complex sentence.
Setting a Scene with Cumulative Sentences
The cumulative sentence is excellent for setting scenes economically. The main clause introduces your setting in broad terms, and you’ll use modifying clauses to fill out the image.
Consider the following phrase;
11. An Example Pulled From My Own Fiction Writing
“The white site was the last, a few paces from where that white faja first hung and just minutes from the clearing.”
Characterization and Cumulative Sentences
Cumulative sentences are also a great way to describe characters…
12. Another Example Pulled From My Own Fiction Writing
“When Bill died, Sarah grew up; no anger, no alienation, no pointless time spent with no-account boyfriends, it was like all of what her father meant to the family passed into her, and she became years older in a matter of months.”
As you can see, cumulative sentences keep thoughts and images unified and let your writing flow. It makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
It sure worked in my writing. I bet it’ll elevate your writing as well.
Cumulative Sentences vs. Periodic Sentences
Cumulative sentences are fairly easy to get right. On the other hand, a periodic sentence requires a bit more of a gentle touch.
So, what is a periodic sentence?
Often called a suspended sentence, the periodic sentence is characterized by suspended syntax, which means the whole meaning is unknown until the end of the sentence.
Here are a few examples to illustrate my point;
13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius.“
14. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.“
In the examples above, the beginning and end of each sentence structure (marked red) make perfect sense when formed as its own short sentence. But the insertion of modifying phrases means you have to keep reading to get the full meaning of the sentence.
And that’s what makes periodic sentences different from their cumulative counterpart.
With practice, you can easily make periodic sentences a comfortable part of your writing repertoire. But be mindful of wordiness so you don’t lose the intended meaning of your sentence.
Time to Work Cumulative Sentences Into Your Game
So, you’ve seen what cumulative sentences are and what they look like in varying art forms. Ready to work it into your writing?
So, what’s next? Practice, naturally.
Practice, and lots of reading. This will help you recognize cumulative sentences and make your writing sharper.
Look for opportunities to use cumulative sentences in your descriptive passages in both setting scenes and building characterization.
Focus on flowing text and economy, and let it happen naturally. As you edit, ask yourself two simple questions:
Is the passage stronger, and is the reading richer?
My bet is on a resounding Yes!
Be well, and good luck.