The Centered Sentence

The type of subordinate structure that places the main clause more or less in the middle of the sentence, with subordinate elements on either side, has no common name. It has been called "circuitous" and "round composition"; we shall say "centered." Whatever we call it, we see it often. (In the three examples that follow in this section, the main clauses have been italicized.)

Having wanted to walk on the sea like St. Peter he had taken an involuntary bath, losing his mitre and the better part of his reputation. Lawrence Durrell

Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword lifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. Henry Adams

While not as emphatic as periodic or as informal as loose construction, the centered style has several advantages, especially in long sentences with numerous subordinate elements. It enables a writer to place those elements more clearly. If half-a-dozen or more phrases and dependent clauses all precede the main construction (as in the periodic style), or all follow it (as in the loose), some may seem to float free. The link becomes obscure, especially when writing about ideas. The chance of obscurity is reduced if the main clause can be placed in the middle of the subordinate elements.

Another advantage of the centered sentence is that it is easier to arrange sentence elements to reflect the natural order of the event or the ideas. Jonathan Swift does exactly this in the following passage criticizing England's participation in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714):

After ten years' fighting to little purpose, after the loss of above a hundred thousand men, and a debt remaining of twenty millions, we at length hearkened to the terms of peace, which was concluded with great advantage to the empire and to Holland, but none at all to us, and clogged soon after with the famous treaty of partition.

Allowed a broad and uncritical meaning of "idea," we may say that Swift's sentence contains nine of them: (1) the "ten years' fighting"; (2) the "little purpose," or lack of result; (3) the "loss" of the men; (4) the "debt remaining"; (5) the "hearkening" to peace; (6) the conclusion of the peace; (7) the "advantages" that followed for England's allies; (8) the absence of such advantages for England herself; and (9) the "clogging" of the peace. Here the order of the sentence mirrors events. In reality, as in the sentence, the fighting comes first, then the absence of positive results, the loss of life, the debt, and so on. Effecting a workable compromise between the natural order of thought or of events on the one hand, and the grammatical order of the sentence on the other, is one of the most difficult tasks a writer faces. When you are dealing with a long and complicated subject, the centered sentence may prove the easiest solution to the problem.

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  • maryam milne
    What is a centered sentence?
    5 years ago

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