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What is an Absolute Phrase? - Definition & Example

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  • 0:00 Phrases & Clauses
  • 0:44 Absolute Phrases
  • 1:22 Adding a Modifier
  • 2:09 Omitting the Absolute Phrase
  • 2:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Sometimes you need a dramatic phrase to set the tone for a sentence, called an absolute phrase. In this video, you'll learn how to recognize absolute phrases and how to use them in sentences.

Phrases and Clauses

What do we mean when we use the term 'absolute phrase' in grammar? Well before we get into that, let's back up and ask, what exactly is a phrase? A phrase is a group of words in a sentence that does not contain both a subject and a verb, or a predicate. By comparison, a clause is a group of words in a sentence that does contain both a subject and a verb.

Phrases and clauses are both groupings of words that form the basic building blocks of sentences. While some clauses can stand on their own as complete sentences, phrases never can. So a phrase will always need to be joined to at least one clause to make a complete sentence.

Absolute Phrases

Now that we've cleared up that issue up, what makes an absolute phrase different from an ordinary phrase? Well, first, an absolute phrase combines a noun with a participle. But wait, you ask, what's a participle? A participle is a form of a verb that is used to modify a noun, verb, or phrase.

Let's take a look at an example:

Hands shaking, I sat down to take the test.

In this sentence, 'hands shaking' is the absolute phrase. We have a noun (hands) and a participle (shaking). And they are both being used to modify the main clause of the sentence, 'I sat down to take the test.'

Adding a Modifier

In the sentence we just looked at, 'hands shaking, I sat down to take the test,' 'hands shaking' is an example of the most basic form of an absolute phrase as it includes a noun and a participle. But you can dress absolute phrases up a bit by adding another modifier or object. Let's take a look:

  • His body stiff as a board, John stood at attention while the commander inspected him.
  • Fingers tapping on the desk, Jan waited impatiently.

While these examples all have the absolute phrase before the independent clause, you can also move it to the end of the sentence:

  • I sat down to take the test, hands shaking.
  • John stood at attention while the commander inspected him, his body stiff as a board.
  • Jan waited impatiently, fingers tapping on the desk.

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