Absolute Forms


Table of Contents


The Absolute Adjectives.

There is a wide range of adjectives with a comparative form that can be used in contexts where the comparison is not made explicit:

the better-class hotels, the greater London area, higher education, the major political parties, an older man, a prior claim, of superior quality, the younger generation.

Such implied comparisons are a feature of advertising language: higher mileage, a smoother finish, etc.

The Absolute Construction

Such a construction stands out of explicit accord with a following clause. It may be verbless, but usu. contains a verb in its present or past participial form.

Examples of the simplest types:

  • Given Didi's condition, he performed an heroic feat in Israel—D. Athill, 1986
  • that done, they drove the animal through a side gate—E. O'Brien, 1988
  • The washing up finished, Jennifer called through the echoey building—F. Weldon, 1988
  • That said, Edgar concluded the missive by reminding his employees that [etc.]
  • Our business done, we were now kinder to each other—New Yorker, 1991.

Stereotyped or formulaic absolute phrases include :

= all told, = all things considered, = God willing, = other things being equal, = present company excepted, = putting it mildly, = roughly speaking, = to say the least, = weather/time permitting.

They do not pose any threat of disunion to the following clause.

Fowler (1926) and Cowers (1965) objected strongly to the placing of a comma between the noun and the participle in the absolute use: e.g.

  • The King, having read his speech from the throne, their Majesties retired;
  • Bath King of Arms, having bowed first to those Knights Grand Cross who have been installed . . . they thereupon sit in the seats assigned to them.

Their warnings seem to have been heeded. I have not encountered any such aberrant commas myself.

A formally similar construction occurs when an absolute phrase containing a participle in -ing or -ed refers directly to the subject of the attached clause:

= Looking at Jim, I remembered the first time I had seen him—Encounter, 1988 = Located in the Smith homestead, Fairweather prepared for his first patrol—M. Shadbolt, 1986 (NZ). It was 'I' who was looking at Jim, and 'Fairweather' who was located in the Smith homestead.

Occasionally the connection need not be exact:

  • As a speaker, I thought him excellent lies just within the borders of acceptability.

By contrast, the following examples lie outside the acceptable area:

  • Picking up my Bible, the hill seemed the only place to go just then—J. Winterson, 1985;
  • Packing to leave, her fingertips had felt numb on contact with her belongings—M. Duckworth, 1986.

In formal scientific writing, unrelated constructions have become institutionalized 'where the implied subject is to be identified with the I, we, and you of the writer(s) or reader(s)':

  • When treating patients with language retardation ... the therapy consists of [etc.];
  • To check on the reliability of the first experiment, the experiment was replicated with a second set of subjects.

Absolutely.

This word has a string of important meanings in the broad area 'in an absolute position, manner, or degree' (independently; arbitrarily; in grammar, without the usual construction; unconditionally; etc.). It has also come to be used as a mere intensive (absolutely awful, dreadful, essential, improbable, out of the question, shattered, terrible). In such contexts, the word if anything tends to lessen the power of the following adjective or adjectival phrase. In conversation, absolutely is a pleasingly old-world variation of 'yes, quite so':

  • I trust that we are still brothers-in-arms?—Absolutely. Pals—R. Stout, 1937;
  • I said, 'Art Floyd?' He smiled. 'Absolutely,' he said—R. B. Parker, 1986.

With not, it is often used in speech as an emphatic refusal or denial: - Are you going to the office party this year?'—'Absolutely not.'; - 'Did you exceed, the speed limit?'—Absolutely not.'

Absolute Possessives.

Under this term are included the possessive pronouns hers, his, its, ours, theirs, and yours, and also (except in the archaic adjectival use, as mine/thine eyes) mine and thine. None of the -s forms takes an apostrophe. The ordinary uses are straightforward (except for its, see below):

  • the house is hers, his, ours, mine, etc.;
  • I met a friend of yours, hers, etc.

Matters become more complicated when two or more possessives refer to a single noun that follows the last of them. In such cases the -s and -ne forms are incorrect.

  • The correct forms are shown in your and our and his efforts (not yours and ours);
  • either my or your informant must have lied (not mine);
  • her and his strong contempt (not hers).

Rearrangement of the pronouns removes any risk of error:

  • thus his efforts and yours and ours,
  • either your informant or mine must have lied, etc.

Its is the only pronoun in the series that normally cannot be used predicatively or in the double possessive construction: thus

  • its tail is red, but not this tail is its nor a mate of its.

CGEL 6.29n. points out, however, that independent its is occasionally found, e.g.

  • History has its lessons and fiction its;
  • She knew the accident was either her husband's fault or the car's: it turned out to be not his but its.

In such cases strong emphasis is placed on the contrasted pronouns.

Absolute Possessives.

Under this term are included the possessive pronouns : hers, his, its, ours, theirs, and yours, and also mine and thine. None of the -s forms takes an apostrophe.

The ordinary uses are straightforward (except for its, see below): - the house is hers, his, ours, mine, etc.; - I met a friend of yours, hers, etc.

Matters become more complicated when two or more possessives refer to a single noun that follows the last of them. In such cases the -s and -ne forms are incorrect. The correct forms are shown in

  • your and our and his efforts (not yours and ours);
  • either my or your informant must have lied (not mine);
  • her and his strong contempt (not hers).

Rearrangement of the pronouns removes any risk of error: thus

  • his efforts and yours and ours,
  • either your informant or mine must have lied, etc.

Its is the only pronoun in the series that normally cannot be used predicatively or in the double possessive construction: thus

  • its tail is red, but not *this tail is its nor *
  • a mate of its.

  • History has its lessons and fiction its;

  • She knew the accident was either her husband's fault or the car's:
  • it turned out to be not his but its.

In such cases strong emphasis is placed on the contrasted pronouns.

Absolute Superlative.

Like absolute comparatives, absolute superlatives, i.e. superlatives used merely to express a very high degree of the quality or attribute, without definite comparison with other objects, occur occasionally in informal language:

  • she is most peculiar,
  • your letter is most kind ( = extremely kind).

Forms in -est can also be used in an absolute manner: - she is the strangest woman, - it is the sweetest hat, - he is the happiest of babies.