Absolute Phrases

adapted from Otto Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar

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Models, adapted from Don Killgallon, Sentence Composing 10

She returned to her bench, her face showing all the unhappiness that had suddenly overtaken her. (Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy)

The boy watched, his eyes bulging in the dark. (Edmund Ware, "An Underground Episode")

About the bones, ants were ebbing away, their pincers full of meat. (Doris Lessing, African Stories)

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)


Absolute phrases lack a full verb and may lack possessive pronouns.

The good dogs came stiffly out of their little houses. Their hackles were up and deep growls were in their throats. ==>The good dogs came stiffly out of their little houses, hackles up and deep growls in their throats. (John Steinbeck, The Red Pony)

Noiselessly Lenny appeared in the open doorway and stood there looking in. His big shoulders nearly filled the opening. ==>Noiselessly Lenny appeared in the open doorway and stood there looking in, his big shoulders nearly filling the opening. (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men)


His head aching, his throat sore, he forgot to light the cigarette. (Sinclair Lewis, Cass Timberlane)

Miss Hearne, her face burning, hardly listened to these words. (Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne)

Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber-padded paws. (Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451)

The preceding examples are similar in more ways than necessary to identify them as absolute constructions: They all refer to parts of the body, and most of them begin with possessive pronouns. Not all absolutes do so, but they all have a subject and a "denatured" predicate—one without a full verb. Take special note of the last example, where "spidered" might look like a full verb to a reader who did not know this pattern. It is, of course, a participle (meaning being spidered) and not a verb (meaning did spider), but if misread by an unwary young reader, it might appear to be a verb and might therefore encourage run-ons. Be careful not to make this mistake.