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What Is a Nominative Absolute?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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A nominative absolute is the linguistic term given to a type of phrase within a complex sentence. It may appear to be its own separate, albeit awkwardly constructed, sentence. A thoughtful reading, however, makes it evident that the phrase describes the rest of the main sentence. Often, that relationship is simply descriptive; but it can be more subtle, such as a temporal, or conditional, consequence.

The word nominative is derived from the Latin word for “name,” and its reference in grammar is nouns used as the subject, not as an object of a verb. The word absolute is derived from “made loose.” A nominative absolute phrase therefore must contain a subjective noun, entirely different and separate from the nouns in the main sentence. To further loosen the phrase, the noun must be paired with a verb of some form, or several modifying adjectives, to complete a single thought. Lastly, to complete the appearance of separation, the phrase is nearly always, in English, punctuated by commas.

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“Her cubs following, the female bear waded across the stream.”

The nominative absolute in the above sentence is “Her cubs following.” The subjective noun is “cubs,” and its accompanying verb form is the frequently used present participle of “follow.” The phrase, separated by a comma, is often at the beginning of a sentence, but can be placed anywhere. It appears to be a complete sentence on its own; and most complex sentences with such phrases can be separated with minor corrections — “Her cubs were following. The female bear waded across the stream.”

The more common minor reconstruction, particularly in spoken language, is to state the relationship between the nominative absolute and its main sentence. In this case, it is a descriptive adjective of “the female bear,” and the sentence can begin with the fully expressed prepositional phrase “With her cubs following, ...” to reflect that relationship. Alternatively, and just as commonly, the phrase can be expanded into a complete adverb clause, such as “Since her cubs were following, ....”

Use of the nominative absolute in English probably originates from its common usage in Latin and ancient Greek. Encountering the structure in its written form, an inattentive reader who does not readily recognize its relationship to the main sentence may mistake the phrase for being one of the most common grammatical mistakes called the “dangling participle,” which is truly unrelated to any other word in the sentence. Other readers might have the opinion that it is either archaic or less than stylistic. The following example suggests this type of phrase is in more than fair use: “All things considered, everything should work as planned.”

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anon960095
Post 3

A sentence with a nominative absolute does not have to be a complex sentence. In fact, it rarely is. Only one of your sentences in the example is complex and it does not have a nominative absolute.

anon351719
Post 1

Which of the following sentences does not have a nominative absolute?

Hint: The nominative absolute can be positioned either at the beginning or end of the main clause.

The waves having washed away much of the cliff, the house was in danger.

The town held a festival, the harvest having been so large.

Since the waves had washed away much of the cliff, the house was in danger.

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