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.
- Nervous and buzzing on caffeine, Jane stood by the window, her eyes darting around the room.
- “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)
- 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.”
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.”