It’s Time to Start Writing:
Part 4

This final post of exercises on formal composition looks at two important sentence designs: the cumulative and the balanced. We can think of composing (the word means to put together) as arranging the three fundamental elements of word, phrase, and clause into combinations that best convey in a certain context the thought we want to express. Under this definition, composing involves a more deliberately rational frame of mind, and so it is part of revising, not drafting. When we draft to begin a piece, we gather freely the ideas that arise as we first turn our attention to the subject; when we revise, we analyze what we’ve liberally gathered in order to shape it into recognized designs that effectively carry our thoughts across to the reader.

A cumulative sentence begins with an independent clause and follows that structural core with a subordinate element of some kind. We might write, for example, the cat dashed through the yard, a dog chasing close behind. The core of this sentence is the independent clause the cat dashed through the yard; the subject cat and the verb dashed complete a single thought. That event occurred somewhere, and so the relevant prepositional phrase through the yard is included in this independent clause as a necessary complement to the thought. What follows that complete thought, though, is merely a phrase, the suggestion, not the assertion, of a thought. Its subject is not combined with a finite verb, but with a participle, chasing, and those two elements together raise an idea but do not articulate it fully. The sentence, then, with independent clause followed by a phrase, constitutes a cumulative design.

The term cumulative derives from the Latin for a heap or pile, the picture being that an independent grammatical core has heaped upon it (we might say attached to it) a subordinate element of some sort. Very different is the balanced sentence, which, as its own name denotes, stands in grammatical equilibrium on both sides of a central point. If we converted the cumulative sentence above into a balanced design, we would have two independent clauses balancing equal weight (in both their number of words and relative importance) on a centrally placed conjunction: a cat dashed through the yard and a dog chased close behind it. Or, still retaining a balanced design, we could omit the conjunction (by ellipsis) and replace it, and so the balancing point, with a semicolon: a cat dashed through the yard; a dog chased close behind it. Balanced sentences counterpoise their thoughts; cumulative sentences disequilibrate them instead. Balanced sentences hold two independent ideas under the same steady light for the reader to see. Cumulative sentences put only one thought under a bright light, directing the second to step back a bit to depict the background against which the one independent clause arose.

With these two designs in mind, then, here are seven sentences to compose. Remember that clauses can be independent or subordinate, and that a word or phrase is always regarded as a subordinate element (not to be confused with a subordinate clause) in its own right.


(1) One cumulative sentence with a transitive verb in the independent clause and a phrase as the subordinate element.

(2) One cumulative sentence with an intransitive verb and adverb in the independent clause, with two phrases joined with and as subordinate elements.

(3) One balanced sentence whose two clauses are joined with the conjunction but.


(4) One cumulative sentence with two transitive verbs and concrete direct objects in the independent clause, with two phrases as the subordinate elements.

(5) One balanced sentence of two clauses, each with an intransitive verb and adverb. Join the two clauses with the conjunction however.

(6) Redesign sentence (5) by eliding the conjunction; punctuate accordingly.


(7) One sentence that begins with a cumulative design and ends with a balanced design; separate the two sections with a semicolon.

It is important to remember, finally, that formal composition exercises like these have their place and purpose, but can be out of place and to no purpose if they become an end in themselves. They have arisen from the traditional assumption that without the propensity to organize our first impressions, our reflections remain beclouded and misty, making it difficult for others to understand what we importantly have to say. The rational, the reasonable, the intelligible is the common ground, the public square, of our conversational life, and the order we need is to be found first in our language, the body politic of our thoughts.


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