How to Write Better Sentences: Christensen’s Cumulative Sentence

Forgive me, but this is an exciting moment in the series. This post is part seven of “How to Write Better Sentences,” but it is also the final part of a trilogy, the earlier two parts discussing first clauses and then phrases. I am not sure if such a roundabout route was needed, but my personal experience, when first learning about the ideas of Francis Christensen and his successors, was that I lacked too much of the grammatical knowledge necessary to easily comprehend Christensen’s terminology. My goal has been to break down a couple of preliminary ideas first:

1. Independent clauses can be seen as the kernels of bigger, more complicated sentences. A clause, containing a subject and a verb, an actor and an act, is necessary to make a complete sentence in English, and so one can strip out everything else, and just see the sentence’s seed, its starting point. She poured the coffee. The leaves were green. PS Viriginia Tufte, in Artful Sentences, ranks kernels in terms of energy—a clause that uses a “be” verb contains the least narrative energy, and one powered by a transitive verb the most. “The leaves were green” is, in that sense, the weaker, the calmer, the more contemplative of the two sentences, thanks to its choice of verb.

2. Phrases can be named based on the word that begins them. For instance, “in the house” is a prepositional phrase, while “dirty as a dog” is an adjective phrase, and “getting rid of the body” is a gerund or present participle phrase (depending on how you use it). Getting the list of names right isn’t as essential as grasping their relationship to kernel clauses. In English, we can’t separate two independent clauses by a comma—teachers call that a “comma splice.” But we can join phrases to independent clauses by commas, and we can look at a kernel clause branching off in various directions, depending on where you put the modifying phrases.

She poured the coffee, glaring at me in disgust.

The kernel is in bold, and the phrase in italics. The kernel is at the start of the sentence, and it “branches” right, being modified by the present participle phrase that follows it. If that didn’t feel right, you could “branch” left, putting the modifier first:

Glaring at me in disgust, she poured the coffee.

These phrases can go almost anywhere in the sentence, and so they are also called “free modifiers.”

The dog, a wheezy, useless old thing, heard nothing.

Perhaps this seems like basic stuff. Not to Francis Christensen, whose observation of the use of these techniques in 20th century American fiction led him to create firstly an entire system for teaching better writing, called the “cumulative sentence,” and a radical way of re-seeing how creative writing (in the loosest sense of the term) works.

Christensen’s “cumulative sentence” works, he argues, on four main principles.

1. We are all told that good writing relies on brevity, simplicity, paring our sentences down to the most essential nouns and verbs. Suspect adjectives, dread adverbs, disdain the unspecific noun. But this is bad advice. We should instead see writing as a process of addition, not subtraction. Start from a short kernel clause, and begin to modify it, adding phrases as you go, rethinking your very meaning and intent as the sentence develops. This is a better description of what writers like Porter and Ellison actually do in their prose than the dull divisions of “simple, complex, compound” sentences.

2. Once you begin to add modifications, you must put them somewhere in relation to the main clause—before, after, or within it. Therefore, the second principle is one of direction.

Christensen gives this example of what he means:

The main clause, which may or may not have a sentence modifier before it, advances the discussion; but the additions move backward, as in this clause, to modify the statement of the main clause or more often to explicate or exemplify it, so that the sentence has a flowing and ebbing movement, advancing to a new position and then pausing to consolidate it, leaping and lingering as the popular ballad does.

The modifier “as in this clause” effectively delays the reader, telling her to look again at the preceding clause, while “to modify the statement…” takes the argument forward, going onwards with conclusions and results.

Just to get the grammatical ideas clear, here is the sentence again, with its two independent clauses in bold. Everything else is modifying them.

The main clause, which may or may not have a sentence modifier before it, advances the discussion; but the additions move backward, as in this clause, to modify the statement of the main clause or more often to explicate or exemplify it, so that the sentence has a flowing and ebbing movement, advancing to a new position and then pausing to consolidate it, leaping and lingering as the popular ballad does.

3. In every piece of the sentence, a writer chooses what level of detail/generality to focus on, either abstract and broad, or concrete and specific. That focus can change from clause to phrase, from phrase to phrase, with a writer zooming in and out, moving from sight to insight.

It was one of those ruined Honda Civics you saw all over the estate, its front wheels missing, moss in the grill.

I’m not sure the above sentence is completely plausible—I know far too little about car brands—but I hope you can see how it moves from generalities to the specific.

4. Also at every level, a writer decides how much texture to give a sentence. Should the clause be decked out with modifying phrases, adverbs, adjectives, or should it be left bare? A skilled writer can communicate much to a reader by this choice, keeping certain sections simple and direct, others densely foliaged. Christensen suggests that variety in texture, however an individual writer’s style achieves this, is the road to excellent writing.

Pause for breath.

So. This is a radical way for writers to re-examine their sentence craft. Suppose you are a writer of narrative or poetry, and you have heard a thousand times to “be specific!” or to “use strong verbs!” and one day you find that you have written:

The leaves were green.

Clearly this is terrible sentence by those rules. Perhaps you start adding adjectives and adverbs to aid the specificity:

The big five-spoked sweetgum leaves were joyfully green.

Hmm. This is only sort of an improvement. Perhaps you should have fixed the verb:

The leaves greened in the dawn.

Nice. The problem with both these solutions is that they feel so heavy handed. Your workshop classmates may enjoy seeing “green” used as a verb, but you can’t follow that up with another unusual verb in the next sentence, or your mum will read it and frown, “Very creative, darling. Not my cup of tea, but…” Of course, there are genius stylists out there, and if you are one of them you can make anything work—but Christensen’s outlook offers another way. In his “generative rhetoric,” there’s nothing wrong with your original sentence. Write the simplest independent clause you can, then start to modify it. Instead of trying to jam all your detail and brilliance into the reader’s eye/ear in one go, try to see a sentence as something unfolding in time, altering a reader’s perception as it goes on, as varied as it needs to be—sometimes focused, sometimes abstract, sometimes dazzlingly rich, sometimes as plain as a walk in the park with the person you love.

Writing this way also allows you to think about what you’re doing as the writing happens, just as the reader has time to think while reading it. It is “generative” because it encourages new ideas, urging you on to new modifications, helping you to ask yourself “how does my character smile when she’s cross at her son?”—rather than sending you back to the thesaurus for another synonym for “smile.”

Christensen offers this writing exercise—start with a few basic clauses, the most simple you can think of, absolutely the least artsy and profound stuff you can imagine, like–

The leaves were green.

She poured the coffee.

He smiled at his son.

And then treat that kernel as the starting point of your exploration into reality. How does that woman behind the coffee shop’s counter pour coffee? How would you modify the clause to capture how she pours milk into a latte? How are those leaves outside green? Try it with just two modifying phrases, then three–

She poured the coffee in a single slop, her wrist flicking up as my cup filled, spilling a little on the pale wood.

Christensen suggests very basic investigations, such as seeing how a class of writers represents “the sound of a bottle of milk being set down.”

Here, just to conclude with a famous writer doing the cumulative thing, is William Faulkner:

She came among them behind the man, gaunt in a gray shapeless garment and the sunbonnet, wearing stained canvas gymnasium shoes.

See the texture and the focus change from the clause as it branches rightwards, moving from the group of watchers to the woman’s body, to her stained shoes.

Are there any problems with this philosophy of the sentence? The first is that reading Christensen is such a comically difficult experience—he seems to have loved writing too much to do a lot of it himself, and his essays, in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, are very, very terse. The posthumous A New Rhetoric is still highly condensed.  The best option is the audiocourse by the Teaching Company, Building Great Sentences, by Brooks Landon. However, Landon spreads about 16 lectures’ worth of material into 24, and this makes the middle part of the course very slow going. The first eight or nine lectures are excellent.

The bigger issue, which I can’t solve here, is that once you really get the cumulative idea, it can be easy to lose track of what a sentence is meant to be. As your sentences become more and more powerful, they do so much that it can be hard to know when to put a “.” When to pause for breath. And neither Christensen nor Landon are helpful at explaining how the cumulative sentence—or indeed any sentence—fits into a bigger body of text, like a paragraph. In Landon’s lecture on paragraphs, he makes the case that paragraphs don’t really exist—this is of little practical use. There must be a rhythm in each person’s writing that transcends each sentence, that is the rhythm of more than just sentences, the weave of paragraphs and pages, in which both grand and simple sentences are contained. How to describe this, however, I do not know.

Next time: meter and rhythm in prose.

Best wishes,

Daniel Wallace

4 thoughts on “How to Write Better Sentences: Christensen’s Cumulative Sentence

  1. Melissa, I like this one too. If I have time, I’m going to finish the series talking about pov in terms of style–I’m working out how to say more than the bleeding obvious 🙂


  2. I am so pleased to have found these observations! I developed something similar decades ago in my first year of teaching (English, grade 7). On Thursday afternoons, we would engage in a group effort to flesh out a basic sentence that we agreed was technically correct but uninspired. Our task was to fortify the grammatically correct structure in order to elevate it to a higher level without going over the top with too, too many accretions. I remember what the students deemed our best effort. We called these sessions “Visions, ReVisions,” by the way.
    Vision: The man looked at the moon.
    ReVision: The paranoid burglar stole a glance at the onlooking moon.

    Liked by 1 person

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