Category Archives: cumulative sentences

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

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.