Periodic and cumulative sentneces

Sentences come in two primary structures which can be described much like this:

  • A main clause starts early in the sentence, is interrupted by details,  and ends with a final important word or idea.
  • A main clause starts and ends early in the sentence, and then it is followed by details.

The first kind is called a periodic  or climatic sentence.  You can  spot it because it builds to a climax.  For example,

  • John Kennedy, in one of the tightest Presidential elections in US history, by a margin of 112,827 votes, won.
  • Six-month-old Ellis, sitting in his high chair, and watching Mom’s hand with its spoonful of carrots draw closer, clamped his two baby teeth shut.
  • Hillary hit a low, skipping, two-run grounder.

The second kind is called a cumulative sentence.   You can spot it because it mimics the way people talk, starting with a complete thought,and then adding details to embellish that thought.  For example,

  • John Kennedy won by 112,827 votes, in one of the tightest US Presidential elections.
  • Six-month-old Ellis clamped his two teeth shot as Mom, holding a spoonful of carrots, drew that spoon close to his mouth.
  • Hillary hit a two-run grounder, the ball skipping past the pitcher and through the legs of the second-base player.

Each is useful for different purposes.

  • The periodic sentence, because of the details which delay the ending, creates both grammatical and meaningful suspense.
  • As the words build to a point, the periodic sentence emphasizes a point embodied in the last few words of the sentence.
  • The periodic sentence releases information formally and logically, showing planning and control by the writer.
  • The cumulative sentence, on the other hand, sounds natural, mimicking the way that people talk.
  • A cumulative sentences sounds informal and conversational.  It adds a stream of consciousness feel to writing and works well in dialog.
  • A cumulative sentence elongates and elaborates on action.

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