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THE ABSOLUTE CONSTRUCTION

  1. A. Ways of Translating the For-to-lnf initive Constructions
  2. B) a participial construction, c) a gerundial construction.
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  5. By Choosing Absolute/Complete Equivalents
  6. Construction
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Another type of secondary predication may be seen in the so-called absolute construction. This appears, for instance, in the following example: Only when his eyes at last met her own. . . was he reassured that for her what had happened had simply happened. She was prepared, the situation already falling gracefully into place about her, to consider it, incredibly enough he thought, as no more than that. (BUECHNER) Here the phrase the situation already falling gracefully into place about her constitutes an absolute construction. 2 The absolute construction is of course a case of secondary predication, or, in Jespersen's terminology, a nexus. The participle falling, which denotes an action performed by the thing denoted by the noun situation, is not a predicate, and situation is not the subject either of a sentence or of a clause. This is evidence that the predication contained in the phrase is a secondary one.

Participles seem to be the most widely used types of predicative element in the absolute construction. We find them, for example, in the following sentences. The preliminary greetings spoken, Denis found an empty chair between Gombauld and Jenny and sat down. (HUXLEY) Off the table leapt the monkey, the tails of his jacket flying out behind him and his silk hat knocked askew as he landed

1 See O. Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar, p. 97, 114 ff.; O. Jespersen, A Modern English Grammar, Part III, p. 203 ff. However, Jespersen used the term "nexus" in so wide a sense that, with him, it even penetrated into the sphere of lexicology: thus, he would call the noun arrival a nexus substantive on the ground that, for example, the phrase the doctor's arrival was in some general way analogous to the sentence the doctor arrived. Of course we will not accept this wide interpretation of the term and we will use it only in a syntactical sense, as a name for a predicative relation between two words or phrases.

2 The term "absolute" is here used in the original sense of the Latin absolutus, that is, 'absolved', 'free', 'independent', and it has nothing to do with the meaning of the word which is the opposite of 'relative'. The term is clearly a conventional one.


The Absolute Construction 261

and leapt again to a streak of light that sprawled in widening, crisscrossed perspective on the floor in the center of the room so that Emma and Bone had to turn about in their chairs to see him spin around and around there making no sound. (BUECHNER) The subject part of an absolute construction is sometimes represented by a noun or phrase denoting some part of the body or dress (here it is the dress) of the being denoted by the subject of the sentence. In this particular case it is the tails of his jacket and his silk hat, his referring to the monkey. This example has its peculiarity, however: the two absolute constructions have a subordinate clause attached to them, which in its turn has a subordinate clause of the second-degree (a clause of result) depending on it.

The absolute construction expresses what is usually called accompanying circumstances - something that happens alongside of the main action. This secondary action may be the cause of the main action, or its condition, etc., but these relations are not indicated by any grammatical means. The position of the absolute construction before or after the main body of the sentence gives only a partial clue to its concrete meaning. Thus, for example, if the construction denotes some secondary action which accompanies the main one without being either its cause or its condition, it always follows the main body of the sentence; if the construction indicates the cause, or condition, or time of the main action, it can come both before and after the main body of the sentence.

Thus the grammatical factor plays only a subordinate part in determining the sense relations between the absolute construction and the main body of the sentence.

The stylistic colouring of the absolute construction should also be noted. It is quite different in this respect from the constructions with the objective predicative, which may occur in any sort of style. The absolute construction is, as we have seen, basically a feature of literary style and unfit for colloquial speech. Only a few more or less settled formulas such as weather permitting may be found in ordinary conversation. Otherwise colloquial speech practically always has subordinate clauses where literary style may have absolute constructions.

A participle is by no means a necessary component of an absolute construction. The construction can also consist of a noun and some other word or phrase, whose predicative relation to the noun is made clear by the context. Here are a few examples: Bone stood in a patch of sunlight on the gray carpet, his hands behind him, his face in shadow. (BUECHNER) This example is characteristic in so far as the subject of the sentence is a noun denoting a human being, the predicate group tells of his position in space, and the subjects of the two absolute constructions are nouns denoting parts of his body (his hands and his face), while the predicative parts of the constructions describe


262 Transition from Simple to Composite Sentences

the position of these parts (behind him and in the shadow). Breakfast over, Denis repaired to the terrace, and, sitting there, raised the enormous bulwark of the Times against the possible assaults of Mr Scogan. (HUXLEY) And here now he was beside Elizabeth, the memory of this encounter rich within him to bolster and pad, but sad in that it was presently and precisely incommunicable. (BUECHNER) This absolute construction is somewhat more developed than usual, there are two predicatives in it (rich . . . but sad), and a subordinate clause attached to the latter predicative (sad). It might be possible to argue that in each of these sentences the participle being is "omitted", so that we have here an elliptical participial absolute construction after all. But if we firmly adhere to the principle that nothing ought to be considered omitted unless there is overwhelming evidence that this is really so, we shall recognise the absolute construction without participle as a construction in its own right, existing alongside of the participle construction.

In the following sentence there are two absolute constructions, one at the beginning, and the other at the end of the sentence: Her golden arm stretched out, she pointed with a golden finger, and as usual Bone's eyes followed her direction and stopped at the bronze lady standing unclothed in the fountain before them, in her arms a shallow bowl from which water trickled. (BUECHNER)

An absolute construction may be found in narrative style where is does not produce the impression of high-flown language, but is decidedly uncolloquial in character. Here are some examples from modern novels: She had hoped that the war being over, life would gradually resume its old face. (M. MITCHELL) Though this is a kind of indirect speech rendering the heroine's thoughts, it is fairly certain that her thoughts did not run like this: The war being over, life will gradually resume its old face. This is far too literary to have been in the mind of a person thinking silently, or even talking in an informal atmosphere. In the author's rendering of her thoughts, however, the absolute construction is perfectly all right. In a few minutes she returned, her eyes shining, her hair still damp. (SNOW) This again is normal narrative style. The semantic connections between the absolute constructions and the main body of the sentence are different in the two sentences, and they become clear from the lexical meanings of the words, and partly also from the position which the absolute construction occupies in the sentence. Thus, in our first example the absolute construction the war being over clearly has a temporal connection with the main body of the sentence, and in our second example it is evident, both from the lexical meanings of the words involved and from the position of the two absolute constructions after the main body of the sentence, that the relation is that usually called "accompanying circumstances".


The Absolute Construction 263

In the following sentence both a parenthesis and an absolute construction come between the subject group and the predicate. The entire question of whom one loved, he continued, Emma looking up from her work for the first time as she listened, seemed to him of relative unimportance. (BUECHNER) It should also be noted that there is a subordinate clause (of) whom one loved belonging to the subject group, and another subordinate clause, as she listened, belonging to the absolute construction, so that the number of elements separating the predicate of the main clause (seemed to be. . .) from its subject (the . . . question) is quite considerable. However, no misunderstanding can arise here, though there are three finite verb forms (loved, continued, and listened) intervening between the subject question and its predicate seemed . . . This is due to the fact that each of these three finite verb forms is closely connected with Its own subject (in every case a pronoun immediately preceding it), namely, one loved, he continued, she listened. Besides, it should be noted that neither loved nor listened would have made any sense in connection with the subject question, and as to the verb continued, it might be connected with the subject question only if the verb were followed by an infinitive of appropriate meaning, e. g. the question continued to worry him. As it is, continued here means 'continued to speak', which can only be connected with a subject representing a human being.

One more remark about the absolute construction is necessary here. It concerns the semantic ties between the absolute construction and the rest of the sentence. For example, we can say that in the sentence She had hoped that the war being over, life would gradually resume its old face the relations between the construction and the rest of the sentence are causal: we can say that the absolute construction is here a loose adverbial modifier of cause. On the other hand, in the sentence Weather permitting, we shall start on an excursion the relations between the construction and the rest of the sentence are those of condition, and the absolute construction may be said to be a loose adverbial modifier of condition. But now the question is, how do we know that it is cause in one example, and condition in the other? This is not expressed by any grammatical means and it only follows from the lexical meanings of the words and the general meaning of the sentence. What is expressed by grammatical means is merely the subordinate position of the absolute construction. All the rest lies outside the sphere of grammar.

Such, then, are the syntactical phenomena which occupy a place somewhere between the simple and the composite sentence and which may therefore be considered as a kind of stepping stone from the one to the other.

Now we proceed to study the various kinds of composite sentences.




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