The Word Guy: Stand up to standoffish phrases
Question: I have a question about grammar. What is “absolute construction?”
— Amir Attari, Tabriz University, Iran
Answer: Wow, you really know how to hurt a guy. Here I am trying to avoid esoteric, highbrow grammatical concepts in this column — and now this!
In fact, your question is highly relevant and practical. That's because several formulaic, fixed phrases that many people detest are examples of absolute construction: “That having been said ...” “All things considered ...” “All things being equal ...”
I'll get to these nuisances in a second; first, some background.
Absolute construction is the use of a participial phrase that is “absolute;” that is, it stands apart from the rest of the sentence because it's not clearly connected to the sentence grammatically. Writers sometimes use absolute construction to convey situational or parenthetical information.
Consider this sentence: “The economy improving, the company hired more workers.” Here, “the economy improving” is a participial phrase that, while not clearly modifying another part of the sentence, does provide context for the main sentence.
As you can see, absolute construction can be clunky, and sometimes it bears a whiff of an antique literary style: “The employees were dispirited, the company having been sold several times”; “They headed for home, it being the only place they felt safe.”
Each sentence, while not ungrammatical, could be smoother and clearer by connecting the information in the absolute phrases to the rest of the sentence: “Spurred by the improving economy, the company hired more workers”; “The employees were dispirited because the company had been sold several times”; “They headed for home, which was the only place they felt safe.”
Likewise, the formulaic cliches I mentioned before are absolute phrases because they don't modify any individual word in the main sentence: “That having been said, the company remains solvent”; “All things considered, we're still in good shape”; “All things being equal, we can probably raise salaries next year.”
People should spurn these absolute phrases, not because they're old-fashioned and cumbersome, but because they're overused and often pretentious and superfluous.
So should you be wary of absolute construction in all its forms? I say, constructively, “Absolutely!”
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse , as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254..
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- NFL coaches weigh in on Polamalu’s legacy
- Hit sends Penguins’ Letang to hospital
- Alvarez latest in Pirates’ revolving door at first base
- Downie’s goal, fight spark Penguins to win over Coyotes
- Mt. Lebanon native, Iraq war hero’s action goes unrewarded
- Arab League gets serious on terrorism
- Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone
- Starkey: Next frontier for Steelers offense
- Probiotic bacteria help conquer ‘superbugs’
- Shortfalls sabotage promise of a union retiree’s pension
- Man rescued from sinkhole in McKeesport