Category Archives: additive sentences

Imitate classic sentences, part 2

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about improving sentence construction by copying sentence structures of good writers.  (See my blog “Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing. ) The type sentences I discussed then were cumulative sentences, sometimes called additive sentences, which informally add more information as the sentence goes on, as this sentence does.

Today I would like to discuss copying the structure of more formal sentences created by careful planning.  They “breathe” conviction and confidence, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence.

One example is the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Another such sentence is the first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Still another is the opening clauses of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  These sentences encourage the reader to pause and consider their meanings for truth, for irony, and for insight.

How can you create your own such sentences?  According to Fish, you should analyze sentences you recognize as great, remove the content and fill in the structure with your own content.  (It’s like baking a potato, scooping out the center, and then filling the skin with your homemade chili.)  To do this, Fish advises you to

  • write short sentences.
  • use parallel structures.
  • use one- or two-syllable words
  • use the present tense.

Here are some examples I wrote:

“When taking a trip with kids, go to playgrounds first before you run out of sunny days and sunny spirits.”  Let’s analyze this sentence using Fish’s advice.

  • Write short sentences.  20 words
  • Use parallel structures.  “sunny days and sunny spirits”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  14 one-syllable words, 6 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

Here is another.  “Keep your children close and your spouse closer.”

  • Write short sentences.  8 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “Keep your children close and [keep] your spouse closer.”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words. 6 one-syllable words, 2 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

And another:  “When soldiers drill from dawn to dusk on borders dense with tanks and such,  beware of Trojan horses.”

  • Write short sentences:  18 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “from dawn to dusk,” “with tanks and such”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  13 one-syllable words, 5 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

When could you use such sentences?

  • the opening sentences of a novel, short story, or speech
  • the closing of a letter or an article or a chapter
  • a “gotcha ya!” retort from a character or yourself
  • the moral of a story

According to Fish, the more you write these sentences, the easier you write them.  And the easier they become, the more you use them.  (Did you notice?  I just wrote two of them.)

Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing

Do you want to improve the sentences you write?  One way to do that is to imitate classic sentences, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence (2011).  A sentence form he recommends imitating is the additive (cumulative) sentence.  This form of writing seems spontaneous because it shifts back and forth, digresses, repeats, and loses itself in details—much like the speech of some people.

How do you recognize such a sentence?  Many are compound sentences, or if not compound, then containing compound subjects, predicates, and phrases.  They use coordinating conjunctions, especially “and,” “but” and “or.”  One word or idea is not more important than another.  They mostly use one- and two-syllable words.

Why would you want to use such sentences?

  • To show spontaneity, distractedness, and randomness of thought.
  • To write in a way which seems unplanned and lighthearted.
  • To create dialog which ambles from one thought to another.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known writers of additive sentences.  Here, for example, is one such sentence from A Farewell to Arms (1929):  “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

Where do you begin to imitate such a sentence?  One way is to identify its structural components.  It starts with 1) a prepositional phrase showing a general location; 2)that phrase is followed by  “there” plus the verb “to be” followed by two nouns acting as subjects; 3) they are followed by two adjectives connected by “and”; 4) they are followed by another prepositional phrase showing location; 5) “and” is followed by another noun acting as subject of the second clause; 6) then come three adjectives describing that noun; and 7) and another prepositional phrase related to the subject of the second clause ends the sentence.

Or and easier way is to substitute the words in Hemingway’s sentence with your own words.  That’s what I did to come up with the following three additive sentences:

  • Example 1: In the fur of the dog there are fleas and more fleas, jumping in the moonlight, and the dog scratches and twists and bleeds from the bites.
  • Example 2: In the driveway to the house there are drifts, blowing snow, cold and white in the storm, and the snow is thick and racing fast and scurrying over the driveway.
  • Example 3: On the test in Miss Mathers’ class, there are short answers and essays, some easy and some hard, and the students must think and decide quickly and write in their bluebooks.

If you practice creating enough sentences like these, using various additive forms, you will become good at it, and these kinds of sentences will occur naturally to you, expanding the sentence universe you can rely on.

(For a related topic, see a previous blog on Hemingway’s writing rules.)