Author Topic: Absolute phrases don’t function in the same way as appositives  (Read 10207 times)

Joe Carillo

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Absolute phrases don’t function in the same way as appositives
« on: September 24, 2018, 05:08:42 PM »
Let’s consider this very interesting grammar question posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum some years back by new Forum member Jhumur:

“In an earlier column of yours on appositives, ‘When a modifying phrase must drop its verb to work properly,’ you said the following sentence is incorrect because its use of the verb ‘being’ is out of syntax: “The old man sat in the sofa, his face being serious.”

“To me, however, the phrase ‘his face being serious’ looks like a participial construction and the sentence looks OK. This is simply because if you recast the sentence, it looks far better: ‘His face being serious, the old man sat in the sofa.’”

Here’s my reply to Jhumur:

The syntax of the sentence you presented is seriously flawed whether that modifying phrase is positioned at the tail end or up front of the sentence. (1) “The old man sat in the sofa, his face being serious.” (2) “His face being serious, the old man sat in the sofa.”

That phrase may look like a participial construction but it actually isn’t. It just doesn’t qualify as a present participle, which is defined as a present action in relation to the time expressed by the operative verb; in this case, that verb is the past-tense “sat.” In fact, “being serious” is not an evolving action at all but a state or condition; it’s a stative verb phrase rather than a dynamic one. It’s definitely not in the same league as the present participle “reddening” in the sentence “The old man sat in the sofa, his face reddening,” where it’s clear that the “reddening” is an unfolding dynamic action, not a condition.



So if “his face being serious” isn’t a participial phrase, what could it be? It’s actually a faulty construction of “his face serious”—a form of the absolute phrase that drops the verb altogether so that what remains is only the noun plus an adjective. See how that absolute phrase works perfectly no matter where it’s positioned in the sentence: (3) “The old man sat in the sofa, his face serious.” (4) “His face serious, the old man sat in the sofa.” (5) “The old man, his face serious, sat in the sofa.”

In all of the three constructions, “his face serious” modifies not the subject “old man” but the entire main clause itself. Take note that in Sentence 5, “The old man, his face serious, sat in the sofa,” the phrase “his face serious” may look like an appositive but it actually isn’t.

Remember that an appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun right beside it, but “his face serious” doesn’t do that. It gives context to the entire sentence instead—a clear indication that it’s working not as an appositive but as an absolute phrase in that sentence.



To reduce your bafflement over absolute phrases, we might as well take a look at the three other forms that they can take:

1. As a noun plus a modifier. Examples: “His sight weaker, Ben bumped into the lamppost.” “Her job prospects bright, she wanted to join the country’s most respected law firm.”

2. As a noun plus a participle. Examples: “All his wealth gone, the extravagant ex-millionaire lived like a hermit.” “The water meter in his apartment leaking, the tenant incurred a ridiculously high water billing.”

3. As a tailender in a sentence. Examples: “The rich man gave a hefty charitable donation, his heart touched by the misery of the slum dwellers.” “The student was absent from class, her classmates painfully aware of the sudden illness that befell her.”

As you can see, absolute phrases behave in an entirely different way from the usual subordinate phrases we encounter in English sentences.

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the June 16, 2012 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

IMPORTANT RELATED READINGS:
When a modifying phrase must drop its verb to work properly
Appositives as open secret to more engaging writing
The four forms that absolute phrases take
« Last Edit: September 24, 2018, 05:11:19 PM by Joe Carillo »