If you’ve ever felt your essay plodded along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style. What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.
Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.
In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.
The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.
Building Sentences with Absolutes
Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:
Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.
Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:
(S) (V )
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.
Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.
Revising with Absolute Phrases
Incorporating absolute phrases into your writing works to break up short, choppy sentences, which improve rhythm. The example below has combined two sentences by omitting “were” in the second sentence, turning it into an absolute:
The hikers made their way down the wooded trail.
Their boots were caked in mud.
Their boots caked in mud, the hikers made their way down the wooded trail.
In the example below, three sentences are combined
I went snorkeling in Mexico.
The water was warm.
The sun was bright.
The water warm and sun bright, I went snorkeling in Mexico.
In the above example, The water warm and sun bright modifies the independent clause, I went snorkeling in Mexico.
Now you try! Take the sentences below and create absolute phrases. How many different ways can you arrange the phrases?
Santa Clause is coming to town.
His sleigh will be weighed down with toys.
Rudolph led Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.
His nose was bright red to lead the other reindeer.
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