In writing, the term absolute refers to a word or phrase that stands alone in some way, either impossible to qualify or detached from the main grammatical mechanism of a sentence. The term itself means loosened apart, and we can see how it works by looking both at certain adjectives, and at the compositional design called the nominative absolute.

First, the adjectives. We know, of course, that adjectives constitute one of the eight parts of speech, that organizing concept that helps us assign a grammatical function to a word, phrase, or clause as it is used in a particular sentence. An adjective names a quality that is found to be characteristic of a noun; naming the quality along with the noun that carries it makes our reference more specific, and most of the time, specificity aids and abets clarity, the gold of the gold in rational prose. So if we wanted to tell someone that we recently listened to a tedious speech, that would be a more specific reference than simply a speech, or even a long speech. We would be naming, and thereby bringing to light, the quality of tedium, and we would be meaning to say that tedium, or boredom, attached itself to the speech we heard. The noun and adjective have formed a compound reality, and all the more effective for its exactitude.

Adjectives, in turn, can themselves be qualified by adverbs, another of those eight parts of speech. We usually think of adverbs as modifying verbs, which is certainly their more common function, but adverbs also limit the meaning of adjectives and other adverbs. So if we had endured not merely a tedious speech, but a really tedious speech, the adverb really is specifying the degree of tedium, the adjective that had attached itself to, or was characteristic of, the noun speech. And one common function of an adverb is just that: to refer to the degree, or amount, of the quality named by an adjective. A really tedious speech is more boring, if one can imagine it, than a tedious speech.

But not all adjectives can be qualified by an adverb in this way. Take the adjective unique, for example. This adjective names a quality which is understood to be complete in and of itself, and so we refer to it as an absolute adjective. Something is either unique or common, but it can’t be really unique, because to be unique at all means that something has crossed a line into a category all its own. Once something is over the line between what is common and what is singular, to speak of its degree of singularity makes no sense, and so it cannot be modified by an adverb of degree. What does admit of degree is the approach to that borderline, and so we can logically speak of something being more nearly unique than something else. In that case, though, neither of the things we are referring to are yet unique, though one of them is closer to that condition than the other.

In addition to certain adjectives, phrases too can be absolute. The compositional design called the nominative absolute stands, as its name implies, outside the operational grammar of its sentence. In an earlier post (The Nominative Absolute), we examined the sentence Stock prices falling dramatically over two weeks, the government was worried about a financial panic, and here we can say a word more about the grammatical situation of the introductory phrase of this statement. The participle falling is modifying the noun stock prices, and that noun is different from the government, the noun which is the subject of the main verb (was). This difference, or singularity or separateness, is the chief requirement of the nominative absolute construction: the noun modified by the participle cannot be the same as the subject of the main verb; it must be absolute, set or loosened apart from the main syntax of the sentence so that it can readily perform its function, which is to point to the conditions, not the action, of the main verb.

The notion of something being grammatically absolute arose, certainly, from the concern for making precise distinctions, which is the hallmark of logical reflection. The discursive prose we compose most of the time is logical in its structure, the better to communicate the thoughts and ideas about the realities that engage us in our everyday world. The more precise we are, the more energy we gather into our sentences. And energy, purposeful movement, is at the core of good writing.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion