As writers we love language. We love the sound and texture and rhythm of words fitted together.
We get a visceral thrill, a little wordgasm, if you will, when we encounter the “best words in their best order,” as said by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (actually, the ‘best words’ applies to poetry. For prose he said ‘words in their best order’ but I think ‘best’ should apply to prose as well).
That's a lot of pressure when building sentences. So, first off, let me let you off the hook. That kind of building should be done in the revision process, not during the writing process.
I’m going to add technically here because the more familiar you are with various techniques, the more they will naturally slide into position at the appropriate moment during the writing process. You won’t have to dig for the tool later; it will present itself in the moment. But, for now, just write however it comes out and do the building later.
And so begins a series on sentences.
I want to start with the two types of sentences recognized by ancient Greek critics: periodic and loose.
In another post we’ll dive into some rhetorical devices with tongue twisting names like homeoteleuton or ones that sound like a illness like paronomasia. In the last post we’ll go into the sound, rhythm, texture idea (kennings and diction and polysyllabic words, Oh my!) and I'll give you some other fun sentences to try.
Yes, it’s important to try them, to make a mess of some and a triumph of others. In writing, as in everything else, we practice.
We’re starting with periodic because the great Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was considered the master of these. Okay, he’s Roman, not Greek, but he introduced Romans to Greek schools of philosophy and was a translator so…
Let’s hear a bit of what Cicero has to say about sentences (the translator was British, so note British spellings):
“But of sentences, there are as many different kinds as I have said there are of panegyrics. For if teaching, we want shrewd sentences; if aiming at giving pleasure, we want musical ones; if at exciting the feelings, dignified ones. But there is a certain arrangement of words which produces both harmony and smoothness; and different sentiments have different arrangements suitable to them… "
“For it is a fault in a sentence if anything is absurd, or foreign to the subject, or stupid, or trivial; and it is a fault of language if any thing is gross, or abject, or unsuitable, or harsh, or far-fetched."
Guess he told us.
(By the way: Translated by English historian Charles Duke Yonge, Cicero’s preface to Orations of Demosthenes and Aeschines de Corona).
The Periodic Sentence
In Greek the name means “speech turned or guided to an end” (and there’s a metaphorical component – the idea of guiding a racehorse around a track with the start and finish in the same place). It has a beginning, a turning point, and an end. A purpose.
Components of a Periodic Sentence
- markers introducing subordinate phrases or clauses point ahead on the path. Signs prepare the reader for what lies ahead. Some markers used could be who, which, first, then, after, where
- expectations are set up and fulfilled
- reader should feel the appropriate end has been reached
- the thought of the sentence is not complete until the end
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER:
When composing sentences, it’s the thought that drives the structure!
Well, as you may imagine, this is not a popular device, but it’s one you can adapt. Perhaps, instead of having six or seven subordinate clauses and phrases (or more, trust me, there can be more) you only have two to three of them.
For example, a reason poets use this device, delaying the verb or the completion of the thought several lines, employing the rhetorical devices we’ll discuss in a later post (like anaphora), and building the idea, is to create tension and momentum that keep the reader reading.
Check it out - I just wrote a short periodic sentence right there using parallel phrases: delaying, employing, building.
The payoff isn’t until the end of the sentence. Why do poets use this device? To create tension and keep the reader reading. You have to get to the end of the sentence to find out.
It’s worth trying. Learn to direct your reader through the sentence as if it is a channel of water flowing out into the larger paragraph of the sea….
Sorry. It just came over me.
I could tell you things like, “It’s the basic art form of the humanists” (Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, Oxford 1971 – Look! Citations! Fancy!) or that it was the “model for modern prose from the Renaissance onward” (Hardy Hansen, Greek Sentence Structure, City University of New York) to beef it up but I’m pretty sure you already hate me for making your brain hurt.
This is good hurt people. It makes you smarter, better, bolder, more skillful, more beautiful. Yeah, sentences can do that. Instead of suck it up I’m saying SOAK it up. Invent some new neural pathways.
Because I feel for you and want you to like me, I will give you an easy, short example.
It’s from Edward Gibbon's, "Memoirs of My Life." (Yes, he also who wrote "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." “Top of my reading list, for sure, Chris,” I can hear you snickering. But it should be.)
It’s one of the most famous periodic sentences written in English (I know, I know, SO exciting!):
Unprovided with original learning, uninformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved -- to write a book.
Take note of the device of repeating words with the prefix ‘un’ creating the same basic idea of lack and ignorance.
The technique has both elements of the rhetorical devices anaphora (starting phrases and clauses the same way) and parallel structure (ideas related to each other in parallel form, elements alike in meaning and function).
Now that wasn’t painful was it? I could have given you one from Samuel Johnson’s preface to his edition of Shakespeare. He uses "consolatory expedients" in it. I know you’re disappointed. But we must move on to…
The Loose Sentence!
Just hang on, this one’s easier.
The Greek for this means “speech strung together.” Think beads on a necklace. Statements follow one another without indicating another will be coming. The sentence ends in a place where it doesn’t matter. It could have ended earlier or later. It would make no difference. It lacks the beginning, turning point, and end.
Well, what I just wrote above is an example. Here’s a more interesting one from Ernest Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises":
The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped.
Cause that’s it. Here, watch “Marcel The Shell With Shoes On” to clear your head. You did good.
(If you want to read a really long periodic sentence, it’s just past the video below. Dare you. Come on, it's Gogol. You know you love Gogol.)
From Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story, “The Overcoat”:
Even at those hours when the gray Petersburg sky is completely overcast and the whole population of clerks have dined and eaten their fill, each as best he can, according to the salary he receives and his personal tastes; when they are all resting after the scratching of pens and bustle of the office, their own necessary work and other people's, and all the tasks that an overzealous man voluntarily sets himself even beyond what is necessary; when the clerks are hastening to devote what is left of their time to pleasure; some more enterprising are flying to the theater, others to the street to spend their leisure staring at women's hats, some to spend the evening paying compliments to some attractive girl, the star of a little official circle, while some—and this is the most frequent of all—go simply to a fellow clerk's apartment on the third or fourth story, two little rooms with a hall or a kitchen, with some pretensions to style, with a lamp or some such article that has cost many sacrifices of dinners and excursions—at the time when all the clerks are scattered about the apartments of their friends, playing a stormy game of whist, sipping tea out of glasses, eating cheap biscuits, sucking in smoke from long pipes, telling, as the cards are dealt, some scandal that has floated down from higher circles, a pleasure which the Russian do never by any possibility deny himself, or, when there is nothing better to talk about, repeating the everlasting anecdote of the commanding officer who was told that the tail had been cut off the horse on the Falconet monument—in short, even when everyone, was eagerly seeking entertainment, Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any amusement.