What Is the Running Style in English Prose?

Questions and Answers About Grammar and Rhetoric

running style
(Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images)

"The free-running style," said Aristotle in his book On Rhetoric, "is the kind that has no natural stopping-places, and comes to a stop only because there is no more to say of that subject" (Book Three, Chapter Nine).

It's a sentence style often used by excited children:

And then Uncle Richard took us to the Dairy Queen and we had ice cream and I had strawberry and the bottom of my cone fell off and there was ice cream all over the floor and Mandy laughed and then she threw up and Uncle Richard took us home and didn't say anything.

And the running style was favored by the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman:

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there--and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads--all became part of him.
("There Was a Child Went Forth," Leaves of Grass)

The running style often appears in the Bible:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
(Matthew, 7:27)

And Ernest Hemingway built his career on it:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
("In Another Country")

In contrast to the periodic sentence style, with its carefully layered subordinate clauses, the running style offers a relentless succession of simple and compound structures. As Richard Lanham observes in Analyzing Prose (Continuum, 2003), the running style gives the appearance of a mind at work, making things up as it goes along, with sentences mimicking the "rambling, associative syntax of conversation."

In The New Oxford Guide to Writing (1988), Thomas Kane itemizes the virtues of the running stylewhich he calls the "freight-train style":

It is useful when you wish to link a series of events, ideas, impressions, feelings, or perceptions as immediately as possible, without judging their relative value or imposing a logical structure upon them. . . .
The sentence style directs our senses much as a camera directs them in a film, guiding us from one perception to another, yet creating a continuous experience. The freight-train style, then, can analyze experience much like a series of segregating sentences. But it brings the parts more closely together, and when it uses multiple coordination, it achieves a high degree of fluidity.

In the essay "Paradox and Dream," John Steinbeck adopts the running (or freight-train) style to identify some of the conflicting elements in the American character:

We fight our way in, and try to buy our way out. We are alert, curious, hopeful, and we take more drugs designed to make us unaware than any other people. We are self-reliant and at the same time completely dependent. We are aggressive, and defenseless. Americans overindulge their children; the children in turn are overly dependent on their parents. We are complacent in our possessions, in our houses, in our education; but it is hard to find a man or woman who does not want something better for the next generation. Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.

Clearly such a style can be effective in short bursts. But like any sentence style that calls attention to itself, the running style can easily wear out its welcome. Thomas Kane reports on the downside of the running style:

The freight-train sentence implies that the thoughts it links together with grammatical equality are equally significant. But usually ideas are not of the same order of importance; some are major; others secondary. Moreover, this type of construction cannot show very precise logical relationships of cause and effect, condition, concession, and so on.

To convey more complex relationships between ideas in our sentences, we generally shift from coordination to subordination--or, to use rhetorical terms, from parataxis to hypotaxis.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Running Style in English Prose?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/running-style-in-english-prose-1691776. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is the Running Style in English Prose? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/running-style-in-english-prose-1691776 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Running Style in English Prose?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/running-style-in-english-prose-1691776 (accessed March 27, 2023).