Teaching Phrases 4: An Overview of Absolute phrases

This is the fourth post exploring phrases. The first post looked at why we should teach these esoteric constructions. The second post focussed on appositives and the last one looked at participle phrases.

What is an Absolute phrase?

An absolute phrase usually contains a noun, a participle and accompanying modifiers, although you can create them with just nouns and adjectives. Even though they are normally explained as modifying an entire sentence rather than a specific word, some of them seem to modify particular nouns. Like appositives, absolute phrases are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or, if they are embedded in the middle, with a pair of commas.

Let’s look at some examples:

Type 1: Nouns, participles and modifiers

Her coat flapping in the wind, Amy shivered.

They reached the summit, their legs burning with pain from the arduous climb.

Engine revving, the car waited at the lights.

The men, huge bags piled on their backs, walked with laboured steps.

Faces covered in mud, the competitors could hardly be identified.

In all of the above examples, the absolute phrase seems to modify a specific noun in the sentence. When explaining to students, I tell them that these phrases ‘zoom in’ on and focus on a part of the noun.

The dying embers of the fire flickering, people began to walk away into the night.

The outlines of buildings could faintly be seen, the smog hanging heavy and obscuring the view.

The concert having been cancelled, we were at a loose end.

In these three examples, the absolute phrase doesn’t seem to modify a specific noun, instead modifying the entire sentence. When explaining to students, I tell them that these phrases describe the entire situation, giving extra description and information.

Type 2: Nouns and adjectives.

His meal cold, he had been sitting there for what seemed like hours.

Arms weak with fatigue, he didn’t know how much longer he could continue.

Chris looked dishevelled, his hair messy, his shoes muddy.

Why should we teach them?

Absolute phrases are not really a part of oral communication, even if it is formalised academic talk. However, they are common in written texts, particularly fiction and literary non-fiction. As a result, students who don’t read a lot are unlikely to come across these types of sentences at all. Those that do read widely will perhaps have seen such constructions, although in the absence of explicit instruction and deliberate practice, it is unlikely that they will be able to use them.

Like appositives and participle phrases, absolutes ‘enable students to include more information in a sentence and add complexity’. Absolutes lend themselves best to narrative or descriptive writing, and we focus the majority of student practice on those. However, they can also be used analytically. Compare these examples:

Hyde is ‘troglodytic’. It is as if he is atavistic and primal.

Hyde’s appearance being ‘troglodytic’, it is as if he is atavistic and primal,

Mr. Birling gives a number of dogmatic and pompous speeches. He thinks he is infallible.

His speeches both dogmatic and pompous, Mr Birling thinks he is infallible.

In my next post, I will look at how we approach the explicit teaching of vocabulary


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: