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What Is an Absolute Construction?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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An absolute construction is a secondary clause in a sentence that modifies the whole meaning of the main clause. This is a type of grammar originating from Latin. The absolute construction can form the first or last part of a sentence. Such clauses are not linked grammatically to the main clause, but are linked thematically. Another term for this linguistic phenomenon is the ‘nominative absolute.’

Examples of absolute constructions include “with all honesty, I do not remember last night” and “her hair flapping in the wind, Lucy cycled down the hill.” With both sentences, the first clause is the absolute construction and the second clause is the main clause. The main clauses contain the essential information of the sentence. The secondary clauses, although placed at the beginning of the sentence, add additional information, but do not interact grammatically with the main clause.

Each absolute construction tends to contain a noun, a modifier and a particle. The number of both may vary, but such secondary clauses tend to be simple. Verbs can be inserted into an absolute construction, but they are not necessary. The two clauses, such as “the game now over, the boys cycled home,” are always connected by a comma. In literature, absolute constructions are often difficult to use.

Such clauses are called ‘absolute’ because the clause modifies the verb and the subject of the main clause. A non-absolute construction will modify only the subject and is called a dangling participle. The subject of a sentence is the person doing the action. In the examples given above, the subjects are Lucy, the boys and the person using the personal pronoun ‘I.’

Including verbs often breaks an absolute construction into two sentences. This is most often done with the inclusion of a ‘to be’ verb in the secondary clause. This can turn “Expecting his boss to be kind, Dave tried to look innocent” into “Dave was expecting his boss to be kind. He tried to look innocent.” Both sentences relay exactly the same information, but in different grammatical styles. The most important difference, apart from the inclusion of ‘was,’ is the switching of subject-name and personal pronoun.

Breaking up absolute constructions into two sentences occurs more often in speech than in written pieces. This suggests that such constructions are a literary device rather than something found in natural speech. There are many cases, however, of the inclusion of absolute constructions in spoken English. These include sentences beginning with “all things considered” and “depending on the weather.”

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Discussion Comments

By allenJo — On Mar 17, 2012

@Mammmood - I’ve seen some of those misplaced constructions too and sometimes they can lead to unintentional hilarity. I think this is the reason we rarely use such constructions in spoken speech.

For one thing they force you to think about how you’re structuring your sentences, and when we speak we don’t really like to think too much about how we’re going to speak – otherwise it leads to awkward and stilted expressions.

So to borrow from the example that you gave, in vernacular I think it would be common to say, “He was working in the yard and got stung by a bee.”

By Mammmood — On Mar 17, 2012

The one danger in attempting to use absolute constructions is that you may misplace your modifier. For example, you may write the sentence, “working in the yard, a bee stung him.”

That appears to be an absolute construction but it’s incorrect. As it stands the modifier is misplaced; it appears to suggest that the bee was working in the yard, which is of course not the intention of the writer.

The sentence should be rewritten as “working in the yard, he was stung by a bee.” That rearrangement clearly suggests that the man was working and he was stung by a bee. You have to pay attention when you use these constructions.

By honeybees — On Mar 17, 2012

I never paid much attention in my high school English class, but my dad always made sure we used correct grammar when we were speaking.

I don't remember learning about absolute construction, but there is one phrase I hear a lot when people are speaking.

How many times have you heard someone say, "To be honest with you, I don't care which restaurant we eat at". It's the first part of the phrase that I find so interesting and gets used so often.

"To be honest with you" can be followed by any number of explanations, but why would someone need to be honest about that?

The second part of the phrase could stand alone and be just fine, but why does it need to be preceded by being honest about it?

By Mykol — On Mar 16, 2012
I find myself using one absolute construction quite often when I speak. We live in a state that has a lot of extreme weather conditions.

We love to ride our motorcycle every chance we get, but don't always have ideal conditions for it.

Even in the summer, it can be too hot, too humid, too windy or raining. Many times I find myself saying, "Depending on the weather, we'll be taking the motorcycle to town today".

We also live on a small farm, so there are a lot of things we do that depend on the weather. I never realized I was using an absolute construction in my grammar, but do know I use that expression quite often.

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