A Closer Look at Absolute Phrases on the GMAT

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomRead the following sentences:

  1. About 70 percent of the tomatoes grown in the United States come from seeds that have been engineered in a laboratory, their DNA modified with genetic material not naturally found in tomato species.
  2. The defense lawyer and witnesses portrayed the accused as a victim of circumstance, his life uprooted by the media pressure to punish someone in the case.
  3. Researchers in Germany have unearthed 400,000-year-old wooden spears from what appears to be an ancient lakeshore hunting ground, stunning evidence that human ancestors systematically hunted big game much earlier than believed.

Which grammatical construct is represented by the underlined portions of these sentences?

These are called absolute phrases. They often confuse people but once you understand properly what they are and what they do, they will not be intimidating.

What is an Absolute Phrase?

An absolute phrase is a type of modifier that modifies an independent clause as a whole.

Structure of an Absolute Phrase

Often (but not always), this is the structure of an absolute phrase:

noun + participle (could be -ing or -ed) + optional modifier or object

Usage of an Absolute Phrase

It is often useful in describing one part of the whole person/place/thing or in explaining a cause or condition etc.

For example:

There was no one in sight and Sanders, his hands still jammed in his pockets, scowled down the empty street. (The underlined absolute phrase describes just the hands of Sanders)

We devoured the yummy pastries, our fingers scraping the leftover frosting off the plates. (The underlined absolute phrase describes just our fingers)

The underlined absolute phrase in sentence 1 above describes the DNA of the seeds.

The underlined absolute phrases in sentences 2 and 3 above describe conditions.

Some Alternative Structures of Absolute Phrases

Some absolute phrases have a different structure.

  1. The participle being is often omitted in an absolute phrase, leaving only a noun and a modifier:

The boys set off for school, faces glum, to begin the winter term.

  1. Also, an absolute phrase may contain a pronoun instead of a noun, or an infinitive (to + a verb) instead of a participle:

The customers filed out, some to return home, others to gather at the piazza.
[pronoun ‘some’ + infinitive ‘to return’ ; pronoun ‘others’ + infinitive ‘to gather’]

Now let’s look at the sentence correction question which uses statement 2.

Question: The defense lawyer and witnesses portrayed the accused as a victim of circumstance, his life uprooted by the media pressure to punish someone in the case.

(A) circumstance, his life
(B) circumstance, and his life
(C) circumstance, and his life being
(D) circumstance; his life
(E) circumstance: his life being

Solution:

“his life uprooted by the media pressure to punish someone in the case.” and “his life being uprooted by the media pressure to punish someone in the case.” are not independent clauses because they have no finite verbs in them.

With the coordinating conjunction (‘and’) and semi colon, you need an independent clause.

Accuracy wise, the use of ‘being’ is still suspect. ‘Being’ is not used to describe a state; it is used to describe an ongoing action such as ‘the tree is being uprooted’.

Colon is used if you need to give a list and hence, is not suitable here. Hence, options (B), (C), (D) and (E) are wrong.

Only option (A) describes circumstances suitably using the absolute phrase: his life uprooted by the media pressure to punish someone in the case.

Answer (A)

Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!