What Are Absolute Phrases in English?

A stork on the water

Christine Pemberton / Getty Images

An absolute phrase is a group of words that modifies an independent clause as a whole. Its etymology is from the Latin, "free, loosen, unrestricted.

An absolute is made up of a noun and its modifiers (which frequently, but not always, include a participle or participial phrase). An absolute may precede, follow, or interrupt the main clause:

  • Their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky, the storks circled high above us.
  • The storks circled high above us, their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky.
  • The storks, their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky, circled high above us.

An absolute allows us to move from a description of a whole person, place, or thing to one aspect or part. Note that in traditional grammar, absolutes (or nominative absolutes) are often more narrowly defined as "noun phrases...combined with participles". The term absolute (borrowed from Latin grammar) is rarely used by contemporary linguists.

Examples and Observations

"The absolute phrase that adds a focusing detail is especially common in fiction writing, much more common than in expository writing... In the following passages, all from works of fiction, some have a participle as the post-noun modifier...; however, you'll also see some with noun phrases, others with prepositional phrases.

  • There was no bus in sight and Julian, his hands still jammed in his pockets and his head thrust forward, scowled down the empty street. (Flannery O'Connor, "Everything That Rises Must Converge")
  • Silently they ambled down Tenth Street until they reached a stone bench that jutted from the sidewalk near the curb. They stopped there and sat down, their backs to the eyes of the two men in white smocks who were watching them. (Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon)
  • The man stood laughing, his weapons at his hips. (Stephen Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky")
  • To his right the valley continued in its sleepy beauty, mute and understated, its wildest autumn colors blunted by the distance, placid as water color by an artist who mixed all his colors with brown. (Joyce Carol Oates, "The Secret Marriage")

"A second style of absolute phrase, rather than focusing on a detail, explains a cause or condition:

  • Our car having developed engine trouble, we stopped for the night at a roadside rest area. We decided to have our picnic, the weather being warm and clear.

The first example could be rewritten as a because- or when- clause:

  • When our car developed engine trouble, we stopped...


  • Because our car developed engine trouble, we stopped...

The absolute allows the writer to include the information without the explicitness of the complete clause; the absolute, then, can be thought of as containing both meanings, both when and because. The absolute about the weather in the second example suggests an attendant condition rather than a cause." (Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, 5th ed. Pearson, 2007)

Nominative Absolutes

  • "Nominative absolutes are related to nonfinite verb phrases... They consist of a subject noun phrase followed by some part of the predicate: either a participle form of the main verb or a complement or modifier of the main verb. . . . [C]omplements and modifiers may take almost any form...
  • "Absolutes have traditionally been called nominative because the absolute construction begins with a noun phrase as its headword. Nevertheless, they function adverbially as sentence modifiers. Some [absolutes] explain reasons or conditions for the action described in the main clause; others... describe the manner in which the action of the main clause is performed." (Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 5th ed. Longman, 2007)

More Examples of Absolute Phrases

  • "Roy circles the bases like a Mississippi steamboat, lights lit, flags fluttering, whistle banging, coming round the bend." (Bernard Malamud, The Natural, 1952)
  • "Harry froze, his cut finger slipping on the jagged edge of the mirror again." (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic, 2007)
  • "Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red." (James Thurber, "University Days")
  • "The spider skins lie on their sides, translucent and ragged, their legs drying in knots." (Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, 1977)
  • "His bare legs cooled by sprinklers, his bare feet on the feathery and succulent grass, and his mobile phone in his hand (he was awaiting Lionel's summons), Des took a turn round the grounds." (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
  • "When Johnson Meechum came up the three steps of his purple double-wide trailer and opened the front door, his wife, Mabel, was waiting for him, her thin hands clenched on her hips, her tinted hair standing from her scalp in a tiny blue cloud." (Harry Crews, Celebration. Simon & Schuster, 1998)
  • "Six boys came over the hill half an hour early that afternoon, running hard, their heads down, their forearms working, their breath whistling." (John Steinbeck, The Red Pony)
  • "Whenever you heard distant music somewhere in the town, maybe so faint you thought you imagined it, so thin you blamed the whistling of the streetcar wires, then you could track the sound down and find Caleb straddling his little velocipede, speechless with joy, his appleseed eyes dancing." (Anne Tyler, Searching for Caleb. Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)
  • "Still he came on, shoulders hunched, face twisted, wringing his hands, looking more like an old woman at a wake than an infantry combat soldier." (James Jones, The Thin Red Line, 1962)
  • "A tall man, his shotgun slung behind his back with a length of plow line, dismounted and dropped his reins and crossed the little way to the cedar bolt." (Howard Bahr, The Year of Jubilo: A Novel of the Civil War. Picador, 2001)
  • "The men sit on the edge of the pens, the big white and silver fish between their knees, ripping with knives and tearing with hands, heaving the disemboweled bodies into a central basket." (William G. Wing, "Christmas Comes First on the Banks")
  • "Hundreds and hundreds of frogs were sitting down that pipe, and they were all honking, all of them, not in unison but constantly, their little throats going, their mouths open, their eyes staring up with curiosity at Karel and Frances and their large human shadows." (Margaret Drabble, The Realms of Gold, 1975)
  • "The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table — the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial." (David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994)
  • "The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick." (George Orwell, "A Hanging," 1931)
  • "You can get a fair sense of the perils of an elevator shaft by watching an elevator rush up and down one, its counterweight flying by, like the blade on a guillotine." (Nick Paumgarten, "Up and Then Down." The New Yorker, April 21, 2008)
  • "Two middle-aged men with jogging disease lumber past me, their faces purple, their bellies slopping, their running shoes huge and costly." (Joe Bennett, Mustn't Grumble. Simon & Schuster, 2006)
  • "At a right angle to the school was the back of the church, its bricks painted the color of dried blood." (Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life, 1994)
  • "Ross sat on the edge of a chair several feet away from the table, leaning forward, the fingers of his left hand spread upon his chest, his right hand holding a white knitting needle which he used for a pointer." (James Thurber, The Years With Ross, 1958)
  • "One by one, down the hill come the mothers of the neighborhood, their kids running beside them." (Roger Rosenblatt, "Making Toast." The New Yorker, December 15, 2008)
  • "I could see, even in the mist, Spurn Head stretching out ahead of me in the gloom, its spine covered in marram grass and furze, its shingle flanks speared with the rotting spars of failed breakwaters." (Will Self, "A Real Cliff Hanger." The Independent, August. 30, 2008)
  • "Down the long concourse they came unsteadily, Enid favouring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time." (Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001)


Macmillan Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in Twenty Four Hours, 2000.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Absolute Phrases in English?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/absolute-phrase-grammar-1689049. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Are Absolute Phrases in English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/absolute-phrase-grammar-1689049 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Absolute Phrases in English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/absolute-phrase-grammar-1689049 (accessed June 2, 2023).