Great Courses, Great Sentences 06 of 24

Notes on Lesson 6 from the course Great Sentences by Professor Brooks Landon (from The Great Courses):

This lecture is titled “The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax”:

Main thing from this lecture is the focus on sentence and sentence structure owes a lot to the works of Francis Christensen* who in the early 1960s decided to quit focusing on formal theories and to look at how writing was done by professional writers.

Christensen had four principles for sentences.

  1. Composition is adding. Specifically, adding information and clarity.
  2. Information added gives the sentence a direction of movement.
  3. Cumulative sentences tend to downshift through layers of meaning or being more and more specific.
  4. Cumulative sentences add texture to the propositions that make up the sentence.


Some of my own personal thoughts:

The comment about adding texture to a sentence reminds me a lot of looking at visual art, or even fiber arts. People are drawn to more texture. There’s a whole focus in drawing about adding texture to a piece, and how to make the texture in a drawing look realistic.

Even in things that are meant to be touched, like clothing or blankets, using materials that themselves have texture (silk, velvet, etc) or that have the appearance of texture (achieved through various ways of dyeing or printing) will attract more attention and interest than items which look flat.

There was a point earlier in the lecture where Landon mentioned that Christensen thought there had been a mistake in how writing had been taught — the nouns and verbs had been viewed as more important than the adjectives and adverbs which described them. Christensen thought this had left much modern writing “threadbare”. Again, to me this is like the visual arts: I could draw a still life of the scene in front of me as I’m sitting in a chair typing this on a laptop. And if I did that, I would start the scene with some simple rough shapes and proportions. But that would not interest me or any other viewer. The details of meaning and context I would add to the basic information of the roughly shaped outlines would be just as important as the outlines themselves.


* One of Christensen’s essays was written in 1962 and titled “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence”. Christensen in turn seems to have taken some inspiration from a 1946 essay by John Erskine. Erskine’s essay and the collection of essays where the 1946 essay appears seem to have otherwise been largely forgotten.


Questions to consider:

1. “The end is to enhance life — to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self. Or, more simply, to teach to see, for that, as Conrad maintained, is everything.”
– Francis Christensen.

How might writing better help a person to see better? Or, to put it another way, which comes first: seeing as a writer, or writing?

I think it is a multi-step process.

The writer first has to write.

Then they have to read what they wrote, consider again what they were trying to describe, and see how they missed conveying everything they wanted to convey (and I can almost guarantee that no matter what they were writing, if they step back and compare the two there will be some detail or nuance that didn’t come out quite right, or maybe wasn’t mentioned at all).

And then realizing what they missed the first time around, in the next writing — which could be a revision of what they wrote, or a revision of something else they wrote, or an entirely new piece — they will have to try to improve or change the way they see so they can change how they write so they can try to make their writing have more of the impact they wanted.

And then they compare again, and so it goes.

The first step is writing, but it is never the only step.

2. Write a cumulative sentence that adds increasing specificity of detail to the subject or to the verb of the base clause, or to the base clause itself, with free modifiers, and has a surprise ending.

Sitting in my chair writing, I consider what I am writing, and I consider why I am writing, and I consider my goals for writing, and I consider how often I’m meeting my goal of writing at least thirty minutes a day, and I consider what better uses I might have for the time I’m spending on writing, and I realize that in the end it is — like so many other things in life — all completely true and relevant, and all completely lies and fictions. I write because if I don’t put the thoughts into words and then commit the words to some set version on paper or screen, I continue thinking about that topic and between the old thoughts that are still revising themselves and the new thoughts that want to be considered too, there is soon no time in my head for me to do anything but think about all the things I want to — someday!! — say or do, but never get around to saying or doing because I am too busy thinking about them because I will not put them into words to which I am willing to commit.

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