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absolute phrases

A phrase is a group of words that forms a unit simpler than a sentence. A phrase does not contain a finite (conjugated) verb.

Most phrases modify a particular word in a sentence. However, an absolute phrase modifies an entire sentence instead of a single word:

  • The birds having flown off, the cat climbed down from the tree.

Unlike an ordinary phrase, the birds having flown off does not modify any word in the rest of the sentence, such as cat or climbed. This type of phrase is called absolute because it is self-contained: it usually has its own subject (in this case, birds) and does not need to attach to any word in the sentence.

Structure of an absolute phrase

Absolute phrases can have any of the structures shown below.

Noun + participle

  • Her work completed, Amanda flew home.
    [noun work + participle completed]
  • We scrambled along the shore, the waves splashing at our feet.
    [noun waves + participle splashing]

Noun + other modifier

  • His mind on other matters, Jordan didn’t notice the growing storm.
    [noun mind + prepositional phrase on other matters]
  • The children set off for school, faces glum, to begin the fall term.
    [noun faces + adjective glum]

Pronoun + infinitive

  • The audience filed out, some to return home, others to gather at the pub.
    [pronoun some + infinitive to return; pronoun others + infinitive to gather]

Common expressions as absolute phrases

Some participle and infinitive phrases are common expressions that are considered absolute. Since they do not need to attach to a particular word, they can be placed at the beginning (or end) of a sentence without dangling. Here are some examples:

  • Financially speaking, Bob’s lifestyle changes worked well.
  • Talking of music, have you heard the new band at Taco Jack’s?
  • A storm is brewing, judging by the dark clouds.
  • To get back to the main point, the budget needs to be bigger.
  • The food was mediocre, to say the least.

Punctuation tip

As the above examples show, an absolute phrase is set off with a comma (or with a pair of commas if it occurs in the middle of the sentence).