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Absolute Phrases: Introduction

1. Introduction

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 on the next page.

Go to the next page!

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