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Absolute Phrase

What Is an Absolute Phrase?

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In English grammar, an "absolute phrase" is a phrase that modifies an entire independent clause, rather than just one word. An absolute phrase always contains a noun (bolded in the examples below) and a participle (underlined). For example:
  • Eyes closed, she stroked the crystal ball and muttered some Latin words.
  • (In this example, the absolute phrase "Eyes closed" modifies the independent clause, i.e., all the words after the comma.)
  • Face reddening, he ordered the boys to leave the shop.
  • (Here, the absolute phrase "Face reddening" modifies the independent clause, i.e., all the words after the comma.)

Table of Contents

  • The Structure of an Absolute Phrase
  • Examples of Absolute Phrases
  • The Five Traits of an Absolute Phrase
  • Why Absolute Phrases Are Important
  • Key Points
  • Test Time!
absolute phrase

The Structure of an Absolute Phrase

[noun]
+
[participle]
+
[any modifiers]
+
[any objects]
The noun and the participle are mandatory in an absolute phrase. There may be modifiers or objects too. For example:
  • Fingers crossed tightly, she waited for the referee to blow the whistle.
  • (In this example, "tightly" is a modifier.)
  • His strong hands spinning the sword expertly, he beckoned the ninjas to step forwards.
  • (Here, "the sword" is an object (a direct object), and "expertly" is a modifier (an adverb). Note that the noun "hands" has its own modifiers, making the noun phrase "his strong hands." So, instead of saying an absolute phrase always contains a noun, it is more accurate to say that an absolute phrase always contains a noun or a noun phrase.)

Examples of Absolute Phrases

Here are some more examples of absolute phrases:
  • Weather permitting, we will have our lunch on the summit.
  • The discussion ended, the managers hurried from the meeting room.
  • Her voice trembling with nerves, she spoke with great emotion and sincerity.
  • Their eyes fixed on the horizon, the team led their camels into the desert.
In the examples above, the absolute phrases are at the front of the sentence and offset with a comma. However, they can also appear mid-sentence or at the end. For example:
  • The players, their hearts torn, limped off the pitch.
  • (When mid-sentence, the phrase is offset with two commas.)
  • Dexter stared at the ball, his tail wagging frantically.

The Five Traits of an Absolute Phrase

Here are five traits of absolute phrases:

(Trait 1) There will be a noun or a noun phrase.

  • Torches flashing, the soldiers searched the river bank.
  • ("Torches" is a noun.)
  • Their bright torches flashing, the soldiers searched the river bank.
  • ("Their bright torches" is a noun phrase.)

(Trait 2) The noun will be followed by a participle (past participle or present participle).

  • His fingers shaking, Jack checked the padlock.
  • ("Shaking" is a present participle. Formed from verbs, all present participles end "-ing.")
  • His fingers frozen, Jack checked the padlock.
  • ("Frozen" is a past participle. Formed from verbs, past participles usually end "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n.")

(Trait 3) The phrase is grammatically independent of the sentence.

  • Nose pinched tightly, Sarah jumped from the pier.
  • Sarah jumped from the pier.
  • (The sentence works without the absolute phrase.)
If an absolute phrase is removed, the remainder of the sentence still makes sense. The purpose of an absolute is to add information or context.

(Trait 4) The phrase is offset with a comma (or commas if mid-sentence).

  • Weather permitting, we will resume tomorrow.
  • We will, weather permitting, resume tomorrow.
  • We will resume tomorrow, weather permitting.

(Trait 5) The phrase does not start with a conjunction, a preposition, or another connector.

Compare these two sentences:
  • Weather permitting, we will resume tomorrow.
  • (This is an example of an absolute phrase.)
  • If the weather permits, we will resume tomorrow.
  • (This is not an absolute phrase. It starts with "if," which is a subordinating conjunction (a word that links a subordinate clause to a main clause), and it does not feature a participle.)
Here are another two sentences to compare:
  • Eyes fixed on the horizon, the team led their camels into the desert.
  • (This is an example of an absolute phrase.)
  • With their eyes fixed on the horizon, the team led their camels into the desert.
  • (This is not an absolute phrase. It starts with the preposition "with," which turns the highlighted text into a prepositional phrase. Therefore, it is a type of adverbial phrase, modifying the verb "led" rather than the whole independent clause. This is a technical point. If you have a different view, please let us know using the contact form below.)

Why Absolute Phrases Are Important

Absolute phrases are important for three reasons:

(Reason 1) They enhance the quality of description.

Absolute phrases add descriptive depth to sentences. Their relative succinctness (compared to subordinate clauses) can make a text more engaging and evocative for the reader. Typically, they offer context or background information that is crucial for imparting a writer's mind's eye to their readers.

(Reason 2) They improve sentence variety.

Using the occasional absolute phrase can help with maintaining sentence-structure variety in a text. Such variety is essential to maintain reader interest. (Too many similarly structured sentences in a row can make writing monotonous.)

(Reason 3) They are useful for expressing concurrent actions or states.

Absolute phrases are useful for describing actions or states that occur simultaneously with the action of the main clause. This adds depth to the description by showing how different elements interact in a single moment.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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