Jerome Shea       April 15, 2012      Weekend Wonk

Is your world drab and drear, Bunky? Do people snicker when you slink into a room? Has your love life been on hold since the Clinton administration? Well, you don’t have to be that guy! Doctor Shea is here with a cure, my man! With Dr. Shea’s help, the sun will break through, men will respect and envy you, and the women…oo la la!

Whence comes this salvation, you wonder? Two words: absolute phrase!

Spicing your conversation with absolute phrases will tell those around you that you are a sophisticate, a man of the world, the essence of debonair. You will move in better circles, be invited to parties where they serve caviar and Chateau Lafitte. (No more boxed Chardonnay and cheese doodles for you, Bunky!)

Such at least is how I try to cajole my prose style students. That’s my pitch to get them comfortable using absolute phrases. If any do go on to fortune and fame, I’ll credit it to their facility with absolute phrases, even if they protest.

The absolute phrase is also called the “nominative absolute” (which tells you something right there). A friend reminds me that the Romans knew it as the “ablative absolute,” and they thought it the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow. It’s called a nominative absolute because it has to spring from a noun (or pronoun). It is called absolute because it is self-contained, a nice tidy thought which connects rhetorically to the main part of the sentence but does not connect syntactically. What that means is that if, using the old Reed Kellogg system, you try to diagram a sentence which contains an absolute phrase, there is no way to connect—with a solid line or dotted line or whatever—that phrase to the rest of the diagram. All you can do is stick it in the same neighborhood and hope for the best. And it is called a phrase because that’s what it is. It often does the work of a clause, but although it has what you might think of as a subject, it does not have what is called a finite verb, a true predicate. (A clause is a string of words with a subject and a predicate; a phrase isn’t.)

But enough technicalities for the moment. Here (DRUM ROLL) is a sentence employing an absolute phrase: “Igor having been properly disciplined, I cleaned and stowed my implements.” Did you spot it? Excellent! Yes! “Igor having been properly disciplined” is a classic—and I daresay classy—absolute phrase. “Disciplined” is what is known as a past participle, which—as I used to beat into my grammar students—is “a word that comes from a verb but functions otherwise.” In this case it functions adjectivally, describing the chastened Igor. What else you see there are a qualifier (“properly”) and the machinery (“having been”) to put the phrase into what’s called the past perfect aspect.* Sure, you could have said, “After Igor had been properly disciplined, I cleaned and stowed my implements.” That would be a subordinate (adverbial) clause, and that is what most people would have said (or written.) But most people also settle for cheese doodles, not caviar. Don’t be that guy, Bunky! I am offering you a better life here!

There are four patterns for making absolute phrases: noun + participle, noun + prepositional phrase, noun + adjective, and noun + noun. You have already seen the first, but here is one with a present participle running the show: “Igor bowing and scraping, I assured him that he was back in my good graces.” The adjective model? “Barry insolent as always, I wanted to slap his fat face.” Prepositional phrase (with the absolute following this time)? “The bad guy stood there defiantly, his guns at the ready.” Noun plus noun? “Medusa glared at Jason, her hair a nest of writhing snakes.” Cool, huh?

Quick quiz: “Igor, bowing and scraping, promised not to disobey again.” Absolute phrase? Nope. Igor is now the subject of the whole sentence and “bowing and scraping” is just an adjectival cluster. The comma’s the culprit.

Despite my blandishments (or better, “My blandishments notwithstanding”), the style students are often still cowed. So I tell them that we hoi polloi use quite a few absolute phrases without giving them a thought. “That said” crops up all the time: “My opponent makes a good point. That said, I still must….” “All things considered.” “Present company excepted.” “God willing” (which is right from the Latin, “Deo volente”). “Truth be told.” These are all absolute phrase idioms, and I’ll bet you can think of some others.

Nonetheless, I may be in the minority in my enthusiasm. Bryan Garner, the reigning authority on American usage, sniffs and says that the absolute phrase “often has an antique literary flavor.” In his summary judgment he sides with the esteemed Fowler brothers, who opined that it is “not much to be recommended.”

“Fie,” I say! And I am tempted to add some such sentiment as “The language having gone to the dogs….”

*Ok, “having” is also a necessary present participle, but I didn’t want to get too complicated.

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