Using Cumulative Sentences to Deepen Meaning

As writers, we study how to write description, making sure we add details and imagery to our paragraphs. But did you know that the way we construct sentences can impact how effective our writing is? One such sentence construction is the cumulative sentence, and it can help deepen the meaning and imagery of our writing.

“Most commonly, a cumulative sentence consists of an initial independent clause followed by a number of subordinate constructions, which accumulate details about the person, place, event or idea.” ~The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing

The cumulative sentence starts with a general idea and then becomes more precise as the sentence progresses. They are most often used in setting, description, and sometimes in narration. This kind of sentence is best used for clarity and probably wouldn’t be a good choice for an action or suspenseful scene, which are often better served by shorter sentences for faster pacing. Used judiciously, a cumulative sentence can add beauty and clearer imagery to a story.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“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)

He dipped his hands in the bichloride solution and shook them is the independent clause (it is a stand-alone sentence), and the subordinate clauses that accumulate the details are:

a quick shake

fingers down

like the fingers of a pianist above the keys

The independent clause is an assertion. It is stating a basic idea. The subordinate clauses (or dependent clauses) deepen the meaning by adding details, each detail adding a little more to the image. Each clause builds on the last one, hence the name cumulative.

If the sentence had just been left as the independent clause, you wouldn’t get the same image. He dipped his hands in the bichloride solution and shook them. Okay, so you can image him dipping his fingers in and shaking them, but it’s a rather general, plain vanilla image. How much deeper and crisp the meaning when we see his quick shake, fingers down, like the fingers of a pianist above the keys. Now we have a distinct image rather than a vague one.

As you probably guessed, the cumulative sentence can also help to reveal character. What does the way the man in the sentence shakes his hands reveal about him?

Let’s look at another one.

“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

The independent clause is The unwieldy provision carts, draught horses, and heavily armed knights kept the advance down to nine miles a day.

Our subordinate clauses are

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

The independent clause tells us the basic idea, that the journey is unwieldy with provision carts and heavily armed knights. But the subordinate clauses give a sense of not only what the scene really looks like but also the flavor of desperation as we read that some people had to travel on foot having sold their horses or slaughtered them so that they could eat.

Not all cumulative sentences start with the independent clause at the beginning of the sentence. Sometimes the order is reversed:

“Conflicts and rivalries and their resolutions, pride and its fate, estrangement and reconciliation, revenge or forgiveness, quests and searches rewarded; abidingness versus change, love and its proof—these are among the constants, the themes of the story.”

~Elizabeth Bowen

You can also add metaphors and similes to the independent or subordinating clauses:

“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

Our writing is best served when we create imagery, when we can instill in the reader’s mind exactly what is happening. The cumulative sentence is a great way to do this. Have you ever used a cumulative sentence? If not, will you?

In a Perfect Word Editing

My name is Erin Beth Liles, and I have several years of editing experience. Aside from my bachelor's degree, I have a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego, and I have studied developmental editing with the Author-Editor Clinic. I've worked with both independent and major publishing houses, but my true love is working directly with authors. I also write young adult fiction. My YA novel Phoenix Burning is represented by Mansion Street Literary (and I have another novel in progress) and my short stories have been published in Ladybug, Stories for Children, and Knowonder. Several of my nonfiction articles have appeared in Austin Family Magazine, Mothering Magazine online, and Mamapedia. My children's picture book A Friend for Freckles was published by Guardian Angel Publishing in 2013. My novelette, Outside the Walls, is featured in Clean Teen Publishing's Wonderstruck Anthology. I am a member of the Professional Editors Network, Copyediting, SCBWI, and She Writes.

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