Periodic structure means that readers have to make it through sections of information before understanding what that information is describing or referring to. Often, this can make for confusing sentences. But, when used well and sparingly, a periodic structure can also make sentences feel more dramatic and interesting. It’s most commonly used in creative writing and informal writing.
Periodic structure pronunciation: peer-eee-ah-dic struck-ture
Explore Periodic Structure
Definition of Periodic Structure
Periodic structure is a form of sentence writing in which readers have to wait till the end of the sentence in order to know what the main clause and/or predicate are. The main point of the sentence is held off until the end. This can create a feeling of suspense and even help to focus the reader’s attention. Often, readers will find examples in poetry. It’s especially useful if a writer is building up to something and wants the reader to understand how important that thing is.
Examples of Periodic Structure in Literature
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In Act II Scene 2 of Hamlet, there is a good example of a sentence that uses periodic structure. Polonius is reading a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, the woman the latter loves. The passage reads:
Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
In these lines, the reader has to get to the final fourth line in order to encounter the main clause, “But never doubt I love.” Here, Hamlet forces Ophelia, who the letter was originally meant for, to consider her “doubt” or other very real things and compare that doubt to what she knows about Hamlet’s love. Shakespeare uses this technique at this moment in order to romanticize the sentiment and make the passage all the more memorable.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Consider these lines from Coelho’s The Alchemist as another example.
Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man.
Here, Coelho’s speaker places the main clause “you’ll be a happy man” at the end of the statement. It takes reading through “If you can always concentrate on the present” to get to the main point of the sentence. A similar example can be seen in the following poem.
If— by Rudyard Kipling
‘If’ is Kipling’s best-known and most commonly quoted poem. In the lines of this piece, readers encounter what it is they should do if they want to grow up to be a good man and live a happy life. Kipling’s speaker, who is addressing his words to his son, tells him that he needs to do the following:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Eventually, the poem gets down to the final lines. It’s here that the reader encounters the main clause.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
All the “if” statements were leading up to “you’ll be a Man, my son!” This emphasizes how much it takes to live a good life and all the ways one might fall off the right path, at least in this speaker’s eyes.
Read more Rudyard Kipling poems.
Snow-flakes by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In this beautiful poem, Longfellow uses several examples of periodic structures. In the first stanza, he describes what it’s like to observe snowfall. The lines read:
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
In this passage, he provides readers with five lines that lead up to the final clause, “Descends the snow.” They don’t make a great deal of sense until the reader gets to this sixth line. There is another example in the following stanza:
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
He uses personification and imagery in this second stanza to depict the experience. The first lines lead up to “The troubled sky reveals / The grief it feels.”
Read more Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems.
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
This famous essay contains a few examples of periodic structures. The first can be found in the first paragraph. It reads:
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.
Here, Emerson creates drama by setting up his definition of genius. Readers might find themselves surprised that belief in one’s own thought is what defines “genius” in this literary work. Leaving it till the end of the sentence makes the phrase feel more meaningful and interesting.
Discover more Ralph Waldo Emerson poems.
Why Do Writers Use Periodic Structure?
Writers use periodic structure when they want to create drama or make their text feel more poetic and aesthetic. Leaving the main clause until the end of a passage or line forces the reader to dig their way through other images. This should, in theory, make that main clause all the more impactful when it’s finally revealed. Kipling was betting on this when he wrote ‘If—.’ It should be noted, though, that some examples of periodic structure in one’s writing are okay, but too many could overwhelm the reader and make it hard to understand what’s going on.
A periodic sentence is structured so that the main point/clause or the predicate is at the end rather than the beginning.
An example is: “Because she’s kind, caring, beautiful, and one of a kind—that’s why I want to marry her.”
A non-periodic or loose sentence begins with the main clause and is followed by those that modify it.
Periodic sentences are those that feature the main clause and/or predicate at the end of the sentence.
A periodic sentence ends with the main clause, and a loose sentence begins with the main clause.
Related Literary Terms
- Anacoluthon: occurs when the writer changes the expected grammatical structure of a sentence and interrupts it with another sentence.
- Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Parallelism/Parallel Structure: occurs when the writer uses the same structure in multiple lines.
- Tricolon: a group of three similar phrases, words, clauses, or sentences. They are parallel in their length, rhythm, and/or structure.
- Synesis: a rhetorical device that occurs when the writer structures a sentence based on its “sense” rather than its grammatical structure.
- Watch: What is a periodic sentence?
- Listen: Periodic Sentence Explanation
- Watch: Loose vs Periodic Sentences