The Nominative Absolute

In an earlier post (Stage Directions), we looked at how to change the relative importance, or prominence, of ideas across a sentence. We saw, for example, that by converting an independent clause into a subordinate one, we could present a more interesting picture of what we wanted to say because we would be replicating, in our grammatical structure, the complexity of the real world. The prose that we write is a realistic language, and good, clear composition tries to reconstruct the richness of the real world.

We saw, too, that a grammatical construction called the nominative absolute was another way to change the balance of our statements. A little loftier, but not wildly so, this design element can be employed to emphasize what are called the attendant circumstances amidst which the action of the main verb is unfolding. In the sentence Stock prices falling dramatically over two weeks, the government was worried about a financial panic, the main verb is was, because that is the only verb in this sentence. We might suspect that falling is also a verb because we sense action in that word, but falling is a participle, not a finite verb, the form which specifically situates an assertion in time and associates a subject with it. Still, though, we are right to feel action in the participle falling; but if we can’t say that a participle is a verb, what is it and how does it make up part of a nominative absolute?

A participle is an adjective, but one which has been built from a verb—hence the action we sense in the phrase stock prices falling dramatically. Being an adjective, it must have a noun it is modifying, and here that is the word prices, or more fully, stock prices. And though it might seem like splitting hairs, to say stock prices falling is not to say stock prices fell. The latter is a clause because it contains a finite verb (fell); the former is a phrase because it contains a participle (falling). Clauses assert and phrases suggest or imply or allude, and so only the clause the government was worried is making an explicit assertion in this sentence. The writer is certainly expecting us, logically, to convert falling into the clause stock prices fell, but that is our responsibility as readers and thinkers, not the writer’s as a writer. He has chosen to balance, or proportionalize, his ideas as he sees them—and wants us to see them—together in a scene. Behind that scene is the logic, either boldly asserted with a clause or more finely suggested in a phrase. Here the writer chose the latter arrangement.

And to suggest, as we just saw, is exactly what a participle does. The participial phrase stock prices falling is setting the background against which the subject and verb of the main clause are portrayed. It was in a world where stock prices were falling that the government was worried; the mood of that action pervaded the world within which, or before which, the government was worried—but the sentence doesn’t say that explicitly, and so we really can’t affirm, with the conviction necessary for a conviction in court, that those falling stock prices caused the government to be worried. Cause is certainly the chief logical relation we think of circumstantially and probably the only one which in the end makes any logical sense here, but as writers it is important to see that the participial phrase does not allege that outright; rather, it sets that reality as a backdrop for the independent clause, thereby enriching the scene with levels of prominence and significance.

What makes the world interesting, what gives it depth and color and vibrancy, is its oscillation, or swinging, between this and that, the fact that things arise into view, have their effect, and then recede. We can replicate that movement in language by changing the grammatical elements that make up our sentences, and the choice between a clause and nominative absolute phrase is one such design.

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