Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we learned about independent and dependent clauses, and the 4 sentence types – Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex. Now that we know about clauses and sentence types, we’ll look at absolute phrases.
An absolute phrase combines a noun and a participle with accompanying modifiers or objects. Noun + Participle + Optional Modifier(s) and/or Object(s)
Absolute phrases modify entire sentences, not just one word. They are optional in sentences and can be removed without damaging the grammatical integrity of the sentence, and are always set off with commas (and sometimes dashes).
Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the class 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 class 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 class 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:
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the class 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. The example below has combined two sentences by omitting “were” in the second sentence, turning it into an absolute phrase:
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 snorkeled all afternoon.
In the above example, The water warm and sun bright modifies the independent clause, I went snorkeling in Mexico.
As you can see, absolute phrases are a great way to incorporate variety into your writing. They are especially useful in narrative writing when description is necessary, and when you want to break up short, plodding sentences.