Setting an Idea Aside

Let’s return to the topic of sentence design and look at an interesting grammatical arrangement called an absolute construction. Here’s a simple sentence that carries with it, somehow, a more descriptive or even meditative mood:

I gardened late into the evening, the sun falling slowly behind the trees.

The sentence begins with an independent clause (the subject I and the verb gardened), which is followed by a cluster of words that make up some sort of subordinate element, subordinate because the sun falling slowly behind the trees cannot convey in and of itself complete and independent meaning. This layout of independent clause + subordinate element is the pattern for what is called a cumulative sentence (see the earlier post The Cumulative Sentence), and it is this design that is responsible in good measure for the ruminative air the sentence suggests. But how?

The secret lies in the fact that the sun falling slowly behind the trees is not really saying anything, at least not to our strictly logical mind that wants (indeed, must have) a subject paired with a real verb, what grammarians call a finite verb. This form is what we are most often thinking of when we think about verbs, and it is best understood simply as a verb that has tense, whether past, present or future. If we take the subject and what might seem to be a verb here—the sun falling, could we truthfully say when that happened, without recourse to the clause that begins the sentence? Yesterday or today or tomorrow? We could not, and so what appears to be a verb (because we sense some kind of action), the word falling, is actually a participle, an adjective built from a verb. Participles are verbal adjectives, not finite verbs.

But why can’t we turn to the opening clause of the sentence to find a tense for falling? Because the entire subordinate phrase the sun falling slowly behind the trees lies grammatically unconnected to that clause: I am not the sun, I did not fall, nor did the evening move with the trees. The subordinate phrase only describes a condition, the situation in which I gardened late into the evening; it forms the backdrop to the action depicted in the main clause, and it does this by connecting a noun (the sun) with a participle in grammatical isolation from the main clause. The only relationship this subordinate element has to the main clause is as an adverb describing the circumstances in which the main action is occurring.

This pattern, noun + participle is called an absolute construction, the term absolute being derived from the Latin loosened from: the noun of the participle in the absolute phrase cannot be the same as (it must be loosened from) the noun of the main clause. This grammatical requirement separates the two parts of the sentence, and drapes the subordinate phrase behind the main clause, producing a more interesting scene for the reader to step into mentally. The sentence is not definitively stating that the sun was falling slowly behind the trees—it is suggesting it. And that thin, subtle, delicate difference produces an entirely different way of relating the two actions of my gardening and the sun’s falling.

Intricate wordcraft like this, just like the elaborate lace designs in the textile arts, can draw the reader’s attention into a richer, more suggestive world. For this reason, the absolute construction is probably found more often in the descriptive passages of novels and the like. But it would be a mistake to overlook the construction because of its intricacy. Complexity (not complication) signals interest and curiosity, what our minds seem to be always racing about for in such earnest, and giving readers a little taste of that complexity from time to time will keep their attention on the interesting world we are depicting.


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