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Author Topic: When a modifying phrase must drop its verb to work properly  (Read 158 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 20, 2017, 07:15:33 PM »

In English, some sentences surprisingly become functional only if the modifying phrase or clause drops its operative verb. This is the case with the following constructions that Hairstyler, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, recently asked me to differentiate:

(1) “The old man sat in the sofa, his face being serious.”
(2) “The old man sat in the sofa, his face is serious.”

In the first construction, “The old man sat in the sofa, his face being serious,” the modifying phrase “his face being serious” is grammatically faulty because the verb “being” disrupts its syntax. When that verb is dropped, the phrase does a proper modifying job: “The old man sat in the sofa, his face serious.”

The second construction, “The old man sat in the sofa, his face is serious,” is also grammatically faulty. This time it’s because the verb “is” similarly disrupts the syntax of the modifying phrase. When that verb is dropped, the phrase likewise does a proper modifying job: “The old man sat in the sofa, his face serious.”

The two modifying phrases above that dropped their operative verbs are known as absolute phrases or nominative absolutes. They are unlike the more common participial or adverbial modifying phrases, for they don’t directly modify a specific word in the main clause. Instead, they typically modify the whole main clause, adding information or giving context to it.

In the two corrected sentences above, the phrase “his face serious” is an example of the most common form of the absolute phrase. This form tacks on a modifying word or phrase to a noun or pronoun without an accompanying verb, preposition, or conjunction, as in these examples: “His resolve weaker, the boxer gave up the fight.” “Its headlamps dim, the car rammed the lamppost.” This form of the absolute phrase can even be a single word, like the past participle “miffed” in this sentence: “Miffed, the unwilling candidate snubbed his own proclamation.”


The three sentences above are actually elliptical or streamlined forms of these compound sentences: “The resolve of the boxer was weaker, so he gave up the fight.” “Its headlamps were dim, so the car rammed the lamppost.” “The unwilling candidate was miffed, so he snubbed his own proclamation.” By converting their respective main clauses into absolute phrases, the four sentences got rid of the weak verb forms “was” and “were” and became simpler and more concise.

Take note, though, that absolute phrases take three more forms other than the one discussed here. All four forms are discussed comprehensively in my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (Manila Times Publishing, 486 pages), which devotes three chapters to this admittedly baffling form of modifier.

                                                          ***

Another Forum member, Forces20, asked me this question: “What are the reasons why English is considered a universal language?”

I replied that I can’t answer that question because it’s a loaded one that demands acceptance of a debatable academic premise, which is that English is a universal language. I personally don’t think English is a universal language whether in the literal or figurative sense; to me, that premise is in the same league as the rhetorical claim that “mathematics is the universal language” or that “music is the universal language.”

All I can really say without equivocation is that English is a global language in the sense that it has wide currency as today’s dominant language for knowledge acquisition, international business and diplomacy, as well as mass communication and entertainment. I’m afraid that to accept the premise that English is a universal language—or the universal language—and give the reasons to support it would just put me in the position of providing firepower to those who would like to write an academic paper arguing in favor of a premise that I don’t believe in. I told Forces20 that I’m unwilling to do that. (September 24, 2011)

This essay, 519th in the series, appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its September 24, 2011 issue, © 2011 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: January 20, 2017, 07:42:04 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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