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:

Prepositional phrase:

I threw the ball in the dark courtyard.

Adjective phrase:

I threw the ball red with rage.

Noun phrase

I threw the ball, my fingers sore and aching.

Gerund phrase

I threw the ball, hoping to hit the dog.

Participal phrase

I threw the ball, angered by the prince’s laughter.

Simile phrase

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.

Or:

The beggar nodded in agreement, a sudden bob of dirty hair.

Or:

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.

Best wishes,

Daniel

7 thoughts on “How to write better sentences 6—phrases, and the cumulative sentence”

  1. I question whether this is an example of a gerund phrase: “I threw the ball, hoping to hit the dog.” I think we’re looking at a participial phrase here.

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  2. There are a couple more errors in your labeling of the examples:

    I threw the ball red with rage. That would be an adverb phrase (prepositional phrase used adverbially, telling how you threw the ball.

    I threw the ball, my fingers sore and aching. That’s an absolute phrase.

    I appreciate your references to Francis Christensen. I am the owner and custodian of his work, and I have republished his method and his essays. The method (including extensive work with free modifiers) is in my book The Stewart English Program–Book 3: Writing Plus (epsbooks.com), and the essays are in Notes Toward A New Rhetoric (booklocker.com).

    Keep up the good work.
    Don Stewart

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  3. Thanks, Don. I’ll make the changes.

    Your site (http://writing123.com/) is excellent. Everyone who has gained something from these posts should check it out. I admire how simply you introduce the method, demonstrating the numbering system then detailing the eight kinds of modifier. Have you heard of Brooks Landon’s “Building Great Sentences” audiocourse? That was how I came across Christensen in the first place.

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  4. Brooks Landon deserves great kudos for his elucidation of the Christensen techniques. It is wonderful to know that writers like yourself continue to be exposed to this elegant system for improving style.
    And thank you for your kind comments about the web site. It is a work in progress, and any feedback would be greatly appreciated. I am especially undecided about the name of the site itself. Writing123 refers to the numbering system, but it sounds like a college freshman course, or an elementary school unit. Octave Writing comes from the eight free modifiers, but again, it just doesn’t grab the web surfer (did you know that one of the inventors of the World Wide Web was named Cerf? http://www.internetsociety.org/internet/internet-51/history-internet) I need a title that will stop you in your tracks, make you click the link or take the book off the shelf in the bookstore and run to the cash register. Anyone have any thoughts?
    Yours is a wonderful site as well, with interesting and varied topics and mature tone. Keep on.

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  5. I question the “Simile Phrase” and be more likely to classify it as an elliptical clause. I agree with the statement that phrases are hard to define – as they seem definable only in context with clauses. I’ve always defined a clause with my students as a group of words containing an actor and an action; thus, they can be either dependent or independent. A phrase is a group of words which does not contain both actor and action. I think that the beauty of the cumulative sentence, is that writers are free to use either clause or phrase to develop the proposition of the sentence. We don’t have to look at the clause as somehow superior to the phrase as a means of sentence development.

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