Literary & Compositional Tools » Sentence Structure » Periodic Sentences
or Back to Front
Only smart, intelligent people use periodic sentences.
Most sentences can be classified as either loose (or cumulative) or periodic.
The loose (or cumulative) sentence is our common means of expression. We begin with a subject, followed by an action (the verb), and then additional details.
"Sam, our class president, hopes to attend Harvard University this fall."
The loose (or cumulative) sentence presents the subject and verb near the beginning, such that the reader knows who or what is being discussed and what is happening.
The periodic sentence is a suspended sentence; in other words, the reader either does not know who or what is being discussed and/or what is happening until the final word of the sentence. Well-crafted periodic sentence hold the reader in suspense. The reader anticipates something important, but writer holds it back, building tension, until the final moment of revelation.
Periodic sentences are special sentences: They should only be used in certain situations, often when introducing a new character or place.
Frequently, emcees use periodic sentences when introducing the next performer, to wit:
And now, the most handsome man in the world, a man of extraordinary talents, a legend in his own time, the person that we all wish we could be........
The idea, of course, is that the audience generally does not know who the next performer will be. The periodic approach builds suspense, interest, and/or excitement. It gets an emotional reaction from the audience.
Loose sentences can often be re-written as periodic sentences. For example:
The dragon came down the hallway, its feet pounding the ground, its talons scraping the stone walls, its eyes glaring menacingly, its mouth watering hungrily.
Its feet pounding the ground, its talons scraping the stone walls, its eyes glaring menacingly, its mouth watering hungrily, down the hallway came the dragon.
Basically, take the end of the sentence and move it to the beginning. The details up front, the better. Create fear. Create suspense. Create excitement. Create interest. Create--whatever feeling/reaction you desire.
You are the artist. Manipulate your audience by withholding the vital piece of information that they need to understand the sentence until the very end.
Use this tool sparingly but effectively.
In the following examples, the actual completed sentence is underlined. Note how the writers begin with a series of phrases or clauses, establishing the scene or situation prior to the main statement. And consider what the writer often begins with: Participial phrases, adverb clauses, absolute phrases, prepositional phrases, adverb phrases, adjective phrases, and appositive phrases--tools you already know.
“Out of the bosom of the Air, Out of the cloud-folds of her garment shaken, Over the woodlands brown and bare, Over the harvest-fields forsaken, Silent and soft, and slow, Descends the snow.”
Unprovided with original learning, uninformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved -- to write a book. (Edward Gibbons, Memoirs of My Life)
And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat. (Bret Harte)
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
(The King James Bible, I Corinthians 13)
"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."
(Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965)
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. (Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales)
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Snowflakes")
While he was declaring the ardour of his passion in such terms, as but too often make vehemence pass for sincerity, Adeline, to whom this declaration, if honourable, was distressing, and if dishonourable, was shocking, interrupted him and thanked him for the offer of a distinction, which, with a modest, but determined air, she said she must refuse. (Ann Radcliffe, Romance of the Forest)
Colleyville Heritage High School
5401 Heritage Avenue
Colleyville, TX 76034