Definition and rules. An absolute phrase is a modifier (quite often a participle), or a modifier and a few other words, that attaches to a sentence or a noun, with no conjunction. An absolute phrase cannot contain a finite verb.
Absolute phrases usually consist of a noun and a modifier that modifies this noun, NOT another noun in the sentence.
Absolute phrases are optional in sentences, i.e., they can be removed without damaging the grammatical integrity of the sentence. Since absolute phrases are optional in the sentence, they are often set off from the sentence with commas or, less often, with dashes. We normally explain absolute phrases by saying that they modify entire sentences, rather than one word. This is an important concept, since many similar phrases that we work with modify other words. For example, adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. That said, however, in some cases, it seems to make more sense to say that absolute phrases modify nouns. We will look at some of these examples a bit later.
First, let's look at some examples of absolute phrases:
Examples of Absolute Phrases:
The absolute phrases look like this:
- Her determination stronger than ever, Nexisa resolved not to give up until she had achieved her dreams.
- The sun shining bright and the pale blue sky forming a backdrop of the Sacre Coeur, Carl stepped into his future as a traveler and observer.
- Still young boys, Matt and Erin Billy awoke early one Christmas morning with sleepy eyes, completely unaware that they were sleeping not in the beds they had gone to sleep in, but in one of their presents that year -- a new set of bunk beds.
- We finished the hearty meal quickly, our appetites satisfied, our minds at peace.
- All things being equal, the active voice tends to be correct more often than the passive on standardized tests.
Please notice that in every case the absolute phrase provides some sort of information that works to put the whole sentence or idea in context. Please also notice that the absolute phrases themselves do NOT contain verbs, nor are they connected to the main sentence with a conjunction. Finally, please notice that the primary components of most (but not all) of these absolute phrases are a noun + a modifier, although it is possible to use only a modifier.
If that's confusing, don't worry -- we'll look at these patterns in a bit more detail now.
noun + participle
This is one of the most common ways to form an absolute phrase. It might be helpful for some people to imagine this pattern with a verb between the noun and the participle. For example, if you say The question was still unanswered, you have a complete sentence; if, on the other hand, you say The question unanswered and you then attach that phrase to a main sentence, then you have an absolute phrase.
Here are some examples. The absolute phrases look like this.
- The question still unanswered, the teacher decided to address the confusion of her students more closely.
- The train running late, we decided to get off at the next stop and take a taxi home.
- There are many industries in California vital to its economy, with technology being one of the most important.
Compare these sentences with the verbs and conjunctions in them:
- The question was still unanswered, and the teacher decided to address the confusion of her students more closely.
- The train was running late, so we decided to get off at the next stop and take a taxi home.
- There are many industries in California vital to its economy, and technology is one of the most important.
Important! Although many of these absolute phrases could be written with the word being in them, more formal English (and ETS!) tends not to use being when being is optional. If you've studied GMAT Sentence Correction for a while, then you know that the word being raises a big red flag on the test!
Here are some examples:
- The movie being over, we left the theater.
This sentence could be rewritten like this:
- The movie over, we left the theater.
Similarly, having + past participle is often so semantically similar to the sentence without it that many sentences are written without having + past participle.
An example would be very good here:
- Having been chosen to head the committee, Angus Ng thought about how he could help raise money for his chess club at Harvard.
This sentence could look like this:
- Chosen to head the committee, Angus Ng thought about how he could help raise money for his chess club at Harvard.
This concept is important for the Sentence Correction section of the GMAT, so if you're preparing for that test, pay attention to this!
Wait, wait, there's more!
noun + adjective
Another pattern is to use an adjective after the noun it modifies.
Look at these examples:
- Their meal still not ready after 45 minutes, the hungry and angry customers left the restaurant.
- His hat in hand and pride in check, Horace asked his former boss for his job back.
- The previews still showing, Kelly and Chris decided to leave the theater and enjoy the sunny day.
absolute phrase after a noun
Another kind of absolute phrase is found after a modified noun; it adds a focusing detail or point of focus to the idea of the main clause. This kind of absolute phrase can take the form of a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, an adjective phrase, or a noun phrase.
- Julie crossed the finish line, aware only that she'd broken her personal record, not that she'd broken a world record.
- Budi finished his test confidently, his right hand sore from having written so much, but his mind relieved that it was finally over.
- Erin Billy likes talking to his grandmother because she seems to know that life could change at any moment -- unpredictably.
- "Please photocopy this set of exercises for me -- the sooner, the better."
Although absolute phrases are optional in sentences (meaning they can be removed and the sentence will still be grammatically correct), the are sometimes used to provide the most important information of the sentence:
- Our substitute teacher entered the room, her eyes stern, her stance aggressive, and her demeanor intimating that she would not take any flak from her students that day.
- Their dreams shattered and lives destroyed, the family stared in disbelief at the pile of wood, glass, and metal that was once their house.
In these sentences, you will notice that the information in the absolute phrases is actually more important than that in the main sentences.
This kind of absolute phrase can take the form of a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, an adjective phrase, or a noun phrase. is it OK??