Category Archives: periodic sentences

If it matters, put it last

When most people talk, they make their point, pause, reconsider it, and add a bit more.  They ramble.  For example,

  • I went to the store this morning, and bought some coffee, but not my usual brand–they were out of that–but you know, I am glad I  did because I like the new brand better.

But when good writers write, they consider their sentence structure carefully, naming their most important information last for emphasis.  For example,

  • Grandpa watched the fly flit from lamp to chair to table, chuckling as the curious insect enjoyed a balmy summer flight before Grandpa smashed it dead.

If you write a compound sentence, with clauses connected by the coordinating conjunction “and,” you lose the opportunity for most end of sentence emphasis.  That is because “and” connects clauses of equal weight.  Even so, whatever is said in the second clause gains a slight weight just because it comes last.

If you change the “and” to “but,” a stronger end of sentence emphasis emerges.  That is because a clause after the conjunction “but”  either qualifies or contradicts the previous clause, thereby having the final word.  For example,

  • I ate the sandwich Mom prepared, but first I removed the cheese.

If you write a complex sentence, you write an independent clause and a dependent (subordinate clause).  The information in the independent clause is always more significant because an independent clause is more significant than a dependent clause.  Even so, whichever clause is written last in the sentence gains additional emphasis simply because it comes last.

Abraham Lincoln used this end-of-sentence emphasis to his advantage when he wrote his “Gettysburg Address.”  His uppermost thought throughout the speech was that the the US democracy must survive.  Notice how he emphasizes this thought in the last few words of his last sentence:

  • “. . .that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Many poems place great emphasis on the last words.  Notice how important–and thought provoking–is the emphasis on the last word in “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

  • Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice, like the punchline of so many jokes, uses the last word for irony and humor:

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

To write better, consider your point and make it the last word.

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.