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The Word Guy: Stand up to standoffish phrases

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By Rob Kyff
Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

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..

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