The Cumulative Sentence

In an earlier post (Reading Closely), I made mention of what I think is a finely constructed sentence in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. Its design is called cumulative, and understanding its construction can help us build our own sentences more thoughtfully. Here is the sentence again:

In the quiet of that place even the voice of the surf is reduced to a whispered echo and the sounds of the forest are but the ghosts of sound—the faint sighing of evergreen needles in the moving air; the creaks and heavier groans of half-fallen trees resting against their neighbors and rubbing bark against bark; the light rattling fall of a dead branch broken under the feet of a squirrel and sent bouncing and ricocheting earthward.

Sentence structures are usually categorized as simple, compound, or complex (sometimes also, and I think unnecessarily, compound-complex) according to the number and kind of clauses they comprise. If you read Carson’s sentence slowly (and to comprehend it vividly you almost have to), the trunk or vine of the sentence, so to speak, is at the beginning, with the two clauses voice of the surf is and sounds of the forest are. In structure, then, the sentence is compound, and from this main stem grow the branches of the sentence.

This compound structure roots the sentence well, for the 48 words after the hyphen (almost two-thirds of the sentence) ramify from the trunk in an array of three subordinate elements to detail the forest’s “ghosts of sound.” The first limb after the hyphen is the noun sighing, with modifiers before and after it until the first semicolon. The second limb is more substantial, composed at heart of two nouns, creaks and groans, and extending until the second semicolon with two participial phrases, resting and rubbing. And finally the third limb, again essentially a noun, fall, followed by another noun, branch, modified by a flourish of participial adjectives: broken and sent and bouncing and ricocheting.

It is important, then, to see this sentence in two main parts: everything before the hyphen and everything after. What precedes the hyphen is its compound structure, but what follows the hyphen defines its design. When a sentence begins with an independent clause (here there are two) and continues with only subordinate elements (here words and phrases), the design is called cumulative, because these elements accumulate or pile up onto the main assertions of the statement. (The term derives from the Latin cumulus, a heap or mass of something; we see it in the name given to those beautiful, massive summer clouds called cumulus clouds.) Only clauses assert thoughts, because only clauses join a subject with a predicate. But words and phrases as subordinate elements can suggest or intimate thoughts, avoiding a tone that can seem too pounding, and giving us a way to amend the context more richly.

And lest you think all this pertains only to writers like Carson, we can see the same cumulative design in something as simple as this: My kids had such a great time at the beach today, laughing and giggling and running everywhere. As involved as analysis can sometimes become, theory and practice are ultimately complementary, and together can help us write with a voice that is both natural and intelligent.

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