Marang: Journal of Language and Literature

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Negotiating meaning through the labyrinthine meanderings of periodic and cumulative English sentences

Alec Pongweni


When we acquire fluency in the mother tongue, or when we achieve it in another language, in both cases including fluency in grammatical and communicative competence, we are able to construct sentences with a rich variety of structures, which sentences we appropriately deploy for communication in a diverse range of discourse contexts. Our communicative competence is displayed partly by our ability to use language judiciously when we construct sentences that communicate our thoughts and feelings in specific contexts. This is the classical Hymes (1972) knowledge of what to say, to whom, why, when, and how. The “how” has to do partly with the structural complexity or simplicity of the sentences which we use and partly with whether we are communicating in the spoken or the written mode. It is with the latter that this paper is concerned. Long sentences are generally unsuitable when used in oral communication for taxing the listener’s memory, whereas they are serviceable in the written mode since the reader can always return to the point at which they lost their way through the syntactic labyrinth. The legacy which English syntax owes to the Classical languages includes the so-called periodic or Ciceronian sentence. In addition to this, writers sometimes resort to and exploit that resource which is immanent in all natural human languages, namely the productivity of syntactic rules that is evident in their amenability to cyclical application in the construction of the so-called cumulative or loose sentence. In this paper I focus on the strengths and weaknesses of both these sentence types by highlighting their dissimilarities, similarities, as well as the overlaps between them and, crucially, their stylistic elegance. Overall, I argue that the ability both to construct and to extract meaning from such sentences is an index of one’s fluency in English.

Keywords: periodic sentence, cumulative sentence, syndetic coordination, asyndetic coordination, dualism.

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