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Cumulative Sentence

A cumulative sentence is a sentence that begins with an independent clause and then adds subordinate clauses.

Cumulative sentences are also known as “loose sentences.” They are simple and provide the reader with the main idea. After, come modifiers and additional elements that add detail. They bring together information about a person, place, idea, or event (or whatever is being discussed). 

Cumulative sentences contrast with periodic sentences. The latter are long, involved sentences that are marked by suspended syntax. They are also known as suspended sentences.

Cumulative Sentence pronunciation: cuum-luh-tiv sin-tins

Cumulative Sentence definition and examples


Definition of Cumulative Sentence

Cumulative sentences are perfect for setting a scene or describing a setting. They can summarize a feeling, idea, place, or event while ensuring the reader gets the most important information first. For example: 

The young woman was standing at the door to her house staring at her possessions in disarray, a terrible mess left behind by burglars who she knew by name. 

Often, these sentences can run on in creative writing. Adding detail after detail after the initial independent or main clause. Sometimes though, cumulative sentences work best in academic writing. They provide the initial theory at the start and then add more information to support that theory. The subordinate clauses or phrases are important to the story or paper but only because they add detail to the main clause. 


Examples of Cumulative Sentences 

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow 

In this often-cited excerpt from the 1987 novel More Die of Heartbreak, Bellow writes about radiators, heat, sound, smell and then ties the end of the cumulative sentence into thoughts about mortality. The novel is a dark satire that tells of two savants and explores the connection between the body and the mind, something that can be seen in the following example of a cumulative sentence: 

The radiators put out lots of heat, too much, in fact, and old-fashioned sounds and smells came with it, exhalations of the matter that composes our own mortality, and reminiscent of the intimate gases we all diffuse.

The main clause is “The radiators put out lots of heat.” It’s then expanded upon with “too much.” Bellows goes on, creating a run-on sentence and adding that it also has old-fashioned sounds and smells, “exhalations of matter” that are reminiscent of the “intimate gases we all diffuse.” In this long cumulative sentence, the writer smoothly brings together an extended metaphor about a radiator and the human body.


The Life and Times of Chaucer by John Gardner 

Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer also provides readers with an interesting example of a cumulative sentence. The book is regarded as a wonderful recreation of Chaucer’s time and his work. Gardner uses vibrant imagery to help the reader fully understand what it was like to live in Chaucer’s time and, therefore, better understand why he wrote about what he did. Here is an excerpt that demonstrates the latter as well as the format of a cumulative sentence:

The unwieldy provision carts, draught horses, and heavily armed knights kept the advance down to nine miles a day, the huge horde moving in three parallel columns, cutting broad highways of litter and devastation through an already abandoned countryside, many of the adventurers now traveling on foot, having sold their horses for bread or having slaughtered them for meat.

This long sentence starts with a statement about the carts, horses, and knights who kept the “advance down to nine miles a day.” It is followed by several more statements about how they moved in parallel columns, “cutting broad highways of litter and devastation.” These lines continue, revealing the difficulty of such a journey by describing the necessary deaths of horses. All of these interesting image-rich lines are dependent on the main clause that starts off this run-on sentence. 


Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard 

Holy the Firm is another commonly cited source that contains a great example of a cumulative sentence. The novel, like The Life and Times of Chaucer, is noted for its evocative images and thoughtful depictions of events. It’s a book about the natural world and everything that makes it beautiful and deadly. 

Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine.

In this beautiful excerpt from the book, the speaker uses an initial clause, “Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper,” and then she expands on it. She brings in color-related imagery and a memorable depiction of the scene. 


Why Do Writers Use Cumulative Sentences? 

Writers use cumulative sentences in order to present readers with an important piece of information and then follow it up with connected details. These sentences should be fairly straightforward and easy to understand and then grow more complex as they get longer. The subordinate clauses and phrases elucidate the main idea, which appears at the beginning of the sentence. Writers use these sentences when they want to use a relaxed writing style. 

It should be noted that while using cumulative sentences, it’s important to make sure that they aren’t too long or too winding. This defeats the purpose of the form and can mean that the reader loses interesting in the subordinate clauses. Once having read the initial main clause at the beginning of the sentence, it’s always possible that someone will skip everything else that follows. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information.
  • Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
  • Antistrophe: a rhetorical device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same word or words at the end of consecutive phrases.
  • Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.


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