The Absolute Phrase

Sudhir Khare recently asked the English Master, What is the ‘absolute construction’ in English grammar. Please explain to me in a clear and lucid manner. Okay, Sudhir, I’ll do my best.

The absolute phrase is a sentence modifier, adding particular description. It’s like a close-up shot in a movie that follows an establishing shot. It’s also one of my favorite sentence constructions, especially for narrative writing.

In her book Rhetorical Grammar, Martha Kolln describes the absolute phrase this way:

Among the modifiers that we use to add information to our sentences, the absolute phrase is probably the least used and the least understood. In form, the absoute is a noun phrase—a noun headword with a postnoun modifier; it adds a focusing detail to the idea of the whole sentence.


  1. Nervous and buzzing on caffeine, Jane stood by the window, her eyes darting around the room.
  2. “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. (from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton)
  3. She walked indolently along, with a mind at rest, its peace reflected in her innocent face. (from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain)

Kolln points out that the absolute phrase is almost a sentence; the only thing missing is a “be” verb. For example, if we added “was” to the absolute phrase in example 3, we would get, “Its peace was reflected in her innocent face.”

Extra Credit

I went to a seminar a few years ago led by a man named William Spivey, who had his own system of grammar with a corresponding nomenclature. He called the absolute phrase a “noun-part +” pattern. By noun-part, he meant a part of the actual thing itself (or a part of its environment), not a part of the word. What comes after the “+” could be an “-ing group” (present participial phrase), an “-ed group” (past participial phrase), or any of a number of other groups of words. In my first two examples above, then, the absolute phrases would be “noun-part + -ing groups”; the absolute phrase in the third example would be a “noun-part + -ed group.”

This entry was posted in grammar. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 Responses to The Absolute Phrase

  1. Benita says:

    Could you enlighten me on how “and” should be used? Is it OK for it to start a sentence? And (yes, like this) also the usage of commas before it, or if any at all are allowed to be used. Would be great if you could also write an article on sentence fragmentation and comma usage in general.
    (Cheers from Singapore.)

  2. ravi bedi says:

    Benita has a legitimate query. I find that ‘and’ is used repeatedly in a sentence, with commas before and after. In the same article/story, commas are missing. It’s confusing!

  3. Karl says:

    Hi Benita and Ravi,
    I think that starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction such as and or but is perfectly acceptable, though some prescriptivists will disagree.
    You can find an answer to the question about commas in my entry on serial comma.
    Let me know if you’re still confused.

  4. mary morawski says:

    I am wondering if you have, or are there any William Spivey products available? Is there anywhere to get such information? I have now heard more than a few people mention him with great ideas . . .
    Mary Morawski

  5. Karl says:

    Hi Mary,
    You can find William Spivey’s products available at his Writing Express web site.

  6. Agata Husband says:

    I am seeking the correct method to punctuate the following:
    “If you have any more questions, you may send them to my e-mail address”
    My specific question is whether a comma should separate the words, ‘my e-mail address’ and the actual e-mail address.
    Thank you for your help,
    Agata M. Husband