How to write better sentences 6—phrases, and the cumulative sentence
So far with these posts, I’ve talked about the useful tip of putting the key word last, seeing short independent clauses as “kernels” of longer sentences, noun styles versus verb styles, hypotaxis and parataxis. Now I’m going to talk about phrases, and describe the sorts of sentences they can make when combined with kernel clauses, sentences that can be very effective for writers of narrative fiction. What I am working towards, in this post and the next, is the grand theory of the “cumulative sentence,” explicated and codified by the writing theorist Francis Christensen—a powerful way of understanding how sentences work, and one that contradicts the “minimalist” view of writing made famous by Strunk, White, and Ernest Hemingway. Clarity and brevity, urges Strunk; Christensen instead urges us to see a sentence as a living thing, developing, coiling, deepening. But one problem with both Christensen and, to a lesser extent, his explainers (foremost among them seem to be Virginia Tufte, in Artful Sentences, and Brooks Landon, in the audio course Building Great Sentences), is that they assume a level of grammatical knowledge few of us possess today. This post will attempt to provide the necessary pieces of that knowledge, before we move on to the heights of Christensen’s “generative grammar.”
If a definitive definition of a clause feels hard to come by, most definitions of the “phrase” are so vague as to be no use at all. The whole Internet agrees that a phrase must be less, in some way, than a clause—it must lack the subject + verb pairing that makes a clause the engine of the English language. A phrase cannot, therefore, be a full sentence on its own. But beyond that all is muddle. The categories into which phrases are grouped are, however, far more useful tools. Knowing the names of various common types of phrase feels immediately valuable, and is essential for understanding the more complex ideas of Tufte, Christensen, etc.
Phrases are usually named after the word that begins them. A prepositional phrase, for instance, begins with a preposition—in the castle, by the lake, at night, withthe dead King.
The types of phrase most useful in the making of cumulative sentences are:
I threw the ball in the dark courtyard.
I threw the ball red with rage.
I threw the ball, my fingers sore and aching.
I threw the ball, hoping to hit the dog.
I threw the ball, angered by the prince’s laughter.
I threw the ball as if possessed by a giant’s strength.
The remarkable thing about adding phrases to a kernel clause is that these phrases can go anywhere in the sentence. This is not true of adjectives or relative clauses (that… who… etc), which must be close to the noun they modify. If, for example, I write “The man who had only one eye threw away the ugly baby’s supper,” then the “who” bit of the sentence must stay after “man,” and “ugly” must stay before “baby”—or the sentence means something very different. But phrases contained by commas have the freedom to go anywhere, and so are therefore called “free modifiers.” They can range all over the sentence, adding details and elaborating images. Virginia Tufte calls sentences that combine kernel clauses with free modifiers “branching” sentences, and divides them into left-branching, right-branching, and mid-branching. If we start with the kernel clause
The prince raised the sword.
the sentence can either stop there, or branch right, adding detail after the main clause:
The prince raised the sword in both hands, grinning with madness.
Or branch left, adding information before the clause:
Clutching the hilt in both hands, grinning with madness, the prince raised the sword.
Or branch in the middle of the clause:
The prince, clutching the hilt in both hands, grinning with madness, raised the sword.
There is potentially no limit to these additions:
The man cut down the tree, sweating in the noon heat, his back bent, his arms aching from the rusty axe’s weight, desperate for money, knowing the gringo tourists would pay a good price for the wood.
In my next post, I want to discuss the many virtues of such a view of sentence-making (as well as the limitations of such a view), but for now, I will leave you with just one. For many fiction writers, one technical holy grail is the ability to merge the sometimes contradictory needs of action and description. We want to keep the story moving at the same time as we keep it vivid in the reader’s mental eye, and we no longer have the Victorian luxury of long paragraphs of exposition. We need to do both things at once. A sentence composed of a kernel clause and one or two free modifiers enables a writer to push a story’s action forward while seamlessly adding in sensory details (via the modifying phrases), and for this reason, according to Christensen, it became the primary sentence of American writers in the early twentieth century, the one both most useful to their art and least understood by writing textbooks ever since.
So, rather than the slightly clumsy:
The prince asked me to introduce myself and my companions. His eyes bulged with the intensity of madness.
We can instead write:
The prince asked me to introduce myself and my companions, his eyes bulging with the intensity of madness.
The beggar nodded in agreement, a sudden bob of dirty hair.
The city groaned under the weight of refugees, alien languages filling the hospitals and the public parks.
Christensen points out that this kind of writing weaves back and forth, the modifiers altering what came before, referring back to the action the reader thought she had understood, then leaping onwards with the next clause.
More on this way of writing sentences next time.