Loose Sentence in Grammar and Prose Style

An image explaining loose sentence structure

Stephen Wilbers/Keys to Great Writing/Getty Images

A loose sentence is a sentence structure in which the main clause is followed by one or more coordinate or subordinate phrases and clauses. Also known as a cumulative sentence or a right-branching sentence. Contrast with the periodic sentence.

As Felicity Nussbaum points out, a writer may use loose sentences to give "the impression of spontaneity and vernacular immediacy" (The Autobiographical Subject, 1995).

Strunk and White's Elements of Style suggests not overusing the loose sentence. To avoid monotony, they should be broken up with simpler sentences.

Examples and Observations

"Use the loose sentence for its easy conversational effect."
— Fred Newton Scott, The New Composition-Rhetoric, 1911
"At its simplest, the loose sentence contains a main clause plus a subordinate construction: We must be wary of conclusions drawn from the ways of the social insects, since their evolutionary track lies so far from ours."
— Robert Ardrey
"The number of ideas in loose sentences is easily increased by adding phrases and clauses, related either to the main constructions or to a preceding subordinate one: As the number of subordinate constructions increases, the loose sentence approaches the cumulative style."
— Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988
"I found a large hall, obviously a former garage, dimly lit, and packed with cots."
— Eric Hoffer
"I knew I had found a friend in the woman, who herself was a lonely soul, never having known the love of man or child."
— Emma Goldman

2 Loose Sentences on Baseball

"Sal Maglie ended the third for the Dodgers, walking out slowly carrying one bat, digging his spikes in as though anything is possible in this game, driving the first pitch straight to Mickey Mantle and walking over towards third base to change his cap and get his glove."
— Murray Kempton, "Maglie: Gracious Man With Dealer’s Hands." New York Post, October 9, 1956. Rpt. in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, ed. by David Halberstam. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999
"A 'home run' is the definitive kill, the overcoming of obstacle at one stroke, the gratification instantaneous in knowing one has earned a risk-free journey out, around, and back—a journey to be taken at a leisurely pace (but not too leisurely) so as to savor the freedom, the magical invulnerability, from denial or delay."
—A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games. Summit Books, 1989

Loose Sentences by John Burroughs

"One afternoon we visited a cave, some two miles down the stream, which had recently been discovered. We squeezed and wriggled through a big crack or cleft in the side of the mountain for about one hundred feet, when we emerged into a large, dome-shaped passage, the abode, during certain seasons of the year, of innumerable bats, and at all times of primeval darkness. There were various other crannies and pit-holes opening into it, some of which we explored. The voice of running water was everywhere heard, betraying the proximity of the little stream by whose ceaseless corroding the cave and its entrance had been worn. This streamlet flowed out of the mouth of the cave, and came from a lake on the top of the mountain; this accounted for its warmth to the hand, which surprised us all."
— John Burroughs, Wake-Robin, 1871

A Loose Sentence by President Kennedy

"Although loose sentences are less dramatic than periodic sentences, they too can be crafted into rhythmically pleasing structures. John F. Kennedy, for example, began his 1961 inaugural address with a loose sentence: 'We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.'"
— Stephen Wilbers, Keys to Great Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 2000

Loose Sentences and Periodic Sentences

"A loose sentence makes its major point at the beginning and then adds subordinate phrases and clauses that develop or modify the point. A loose sentence could end at one or more points before it actually does, as the periods in brackets illustrate in the following example:
"It went up[.], a great ball of fire about a mile in diameter[.], an elemental force freed from its bonds[.] after being chained for billions of years.
"A periodic sentence delays its main idea until the end by presenting modifiers or subordinate ideas first, thus holding the readers' interest until the end."
— Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Companion. Macmillan, 2007
"As a general rule, use a loose sentence when you want to keep it relaxed or cap off your series with a figure of speech, like a grace note after the downbeat. But for drama, for suspense, for flourish and emphasis, delay your main clause. Use a periodic sentence."
—Stephen Wilbers, Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write With Clarity, Emphasis, and Style. F + W Media, 2014

The Loose Sentence Style in English Prose

"[Francis] Bacon, who began it all, soon reacted against [the] extremest form [of the Ciceronian style], and the later editions of his essays (1612, 1625) were rewritten in a looser style. ...
"The new manner (which some now called 'Attic') as it was to develop in the 17th century did not merely suit the ears of the time. It suited its mode of thought. The Ciceronian period with its unified and architectural planning, its end foreseen in its beginning, implies settled convictions. The exploratory, doubting and increasingly skeptical mind of 17th-century England could not think in such linguistic structures. The new prose of short statements, to which fresh ideas could be immediately added by parataxis or simple coordination, allowed a writer like [John] Donne or [Robert] Burton to think in the act of writing. By the middle of the 17th century, it was an English prose quite independent of its earlier stage of imitation of Silver Latin. ...
"The terms 'loose' and 'free' can be readily misunderstood, and were generally misunderstood by 19th-century grammarians like [Alexander] Bain, who used 'loose' (with its modern overtone of 'slapdash') as a term of condemnation and so perpetuated an error still embedded in modern grammars. 'Loose' to a 17th-century writer meant simply non-Ciceronian and implied a Senecan basis; 'free' described a sentence-structure in which the clauses were not interlocked but each emerged from the previous by a process of accretion. ...
"Subordination is at a minimum. The sentence proceeds in what is virtually a series of main statements, each developing from the last. These are linked together in one of three ways: parataxis combined with juncture; coordination introduced usually by such words as 'and,' 'but,' 'nor,' 'neither,' or 'for'; and a kind of quasi-subordination, where the link word is usually 'as,' 'that,' 'where,' or 'which.'"
— Ian A. Gordon, The Movement of English Prose. Indiana University Press, 1966
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Nordquist, Richard. "Loose Sentence in Grammar and Prose Style." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/loose-sentence-grammar-and-prose-style-1691265. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Loose Sentence in Grammar and Prose Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/loose-sentence-grammar-and-prose-style-1691265 Nordquist, Richard. "Loose Sentence in Grammar and Prose Style." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/loose-sentence-grammar-and-prose-style-1691265 (accessed June 8, 2023).