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Absolute Phrases on the GMAT

It is not uncommon for test takers, when sloughing through the thicket of GMAT Sentence Correction questions to find themselves scratching their heads over a tricky little GMAT grammar conundrum known as  an absolute phrase. What exactly are absolute phrases you ask? Well, before we dive into definitions and explanations, here are a couple of practice Sentence Correction questions:

1) The United States has the largest trade deficit of any country on Earth, other nations, such as China and Japan, holding stores of US dollars that increase each year.

  1. other nations, such as China and Japan, holding
  2. and other nations, like China and Japan, holding
  3. with other nations, like China and Japan, holding
  4. other nations, like China and Japan, hold
  5. other nations, such as China and Japan, hold

2) The state of California contains 58 counties, of which some of them have a population less than 10,000.

  1. of which some of them have
  2. some of which having
  3. some of them having
  4. some of them have
  5. some of which to have

You may see a pattern linking these two questions.  Full explanations to these problems will come at the end of the post.

 

Modifiers

Some modifiers modify nouns — these modifiers generally have to touch the noun they modifier.   Other modifiers modify verbs — the placement rules for verb modifiers are a little looser than they are for noun modifiers.  One type of modifier modifies not an individual word but the entire independent clause: these are called absolute phrases.

 

Absolute phrases

An absolute phrase has the form [noun] + [noun modifier].  It stands apart from the main clause of a sentence and modifies this main clause in some way.  Examples include:

3) Babe Ruth leads all major league baseball players in career slugging percentages, Ted Williams and Ty Cobb having been better hitters for average than for power.

4) Virginia Woolf refused to publish the novel Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, a slight that Joyce never forgave.

5) On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the castle-church in Wittenburg, this flashpoint igniting a Reformation that would transform religion in the Western World.

6) Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II famously criticized the opera The Marriage of Figaro for having “too many notes”, a slight that, in the eyes of subsequent generations, reveals how little he appreciated the full range of Mozart‘s genius.

In those four, the underlined phrase is the absolute phrase.  In #3 & #5, the form is [noun] + [participial phrase], and in #4 & #6, the form [noun] + ["that" clause].  In all four cases, the absolute phrase modifies or comments on the action at the center of the independent clause.

This grammatical form is rare, and it will not appear with tremendous frequency on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Nevertheless, it is 100% correct and, in fact, typical of formal writing, which makes it perfect for the GMAT.  Learn to recognize this grammatical pattern —– you will find it in more high-brow reading.   In a GMAT Sentence Correction question in which none of the answers seems to form a proper phrase or clause, it may be that an absolute phrase is lurking among the choices.  With this in mind, take another look at those two practice questions above, before reading the explanations below.

 

Practice question explanations

1) Split #1: listing examples.  Suppose we have a category C and examples in this category P and Q.  It is grammatically incorrect to say “…. C, like P and Q.”   Choices (B) & (C) & (D) make this mistake. This mistake is woefully common in colloquial English, but entirely unacceptable on the GMAT.  The correct way to say this is ” …. C, such as P and Q.”

Split #2: The section of the sentence before the first comma is a full independent clause: this could stand on its own as a complete sentence.  What happens after the first comma, at the very beginning of the underline section, varies wildly.  Each choices requires its own analysis.

(A)other nations … holding” —- [noun] + [participle]: this has the form of an absolute clause, which is perfectly correct.

(B)and other nations … holding” —- the “and” implies another independent clause is coming, parallel to the first, but instead we get [noun] + [participle], which doesn’t fit the pattern.  This choice is incorrect.

(C)with other nations … holding” —- this structure is common in colloquial speech, but the GMAT doesn’t like this at all: “with” + [noun] + [participle].  The prepositions “with” is designed to hold a noun, maybe even a modified noun, but not an entire action.   This choice is incorrect.

(D) & (E)other nations … hold” —- This is [noun] + [verb], another full independent clause.  By itself, everything after the first comma in these choices could stand as a complete sentence.  The problem is — we have [independent clause], [independent clause] — that’s the structure of a run-on sentence.  We always need some kind of conjunction (and, or, but, therefore, etc.) joining two independent clause: they can’t just sit next to each other separated by a comma — that’s the classic run-on pattern.   Both of these choices are incorrect.

The only possible answer is (A), with the absolute phrase.

2) Here, we get clause construction as well as what is sometimes called a “subgroup modifier”.

The word “which” is a relative pronoun, and this means two important things.   First, “which” begins a subordinate clause that, like any clause, must have a full [noun] + [verb] structure.  Second, the pronoun “which” itself is the subject of this subordinate clause.   Choices (B) & (E) run afoul of the first rule — they follow “which” with a participle and an infinitive respectively, not a full bonafide verb.   Choice (A) has a bonafide verb, “have”, but it gets in trouble with the second rule — it has a double subject, the word “which” and the phrase “some of them” — this would be a like the sentence, “My sister she is smart” — the [noun] + [pronoun] structure is redundant and incorrect. Choice (A) makes exactly the same mistake.  None of these three choices is correct.

The phrase “some of them” is a noun.  If we follow a noun with a full verb “have”, as (D) does, this creates an independent clause —- everything after the comma could stand on its own as a complete sentence.  Again, the problem is — we have [independent clause], [independent clause] — that’s the structure of a run-on sentence.  Choice (D) makes this mistake and is not correct.   Choice (C) follows the noun “some of them” with the participle “having” — this is the [noun] + [participle] structure of an absolute phrase.   This is grammatically correct, and because there’s a grave problem with each of the other four answer choices, (C) is the only possible answer.

 

So do you think you can you come up with your own tough absolute phrases? Leave some head scratchers in the comment section!

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

12 Responses to Absolute Phrases on the GMAT

  1. Siva Sanjeev December 30, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Hello Mike,
    In your ex. 1

    If option ‘C’ had ‘such as’ instead of ‘like’, would ‘C’ have been a more preferable answer?

    Rewriting option C with such as.

    The United States has the largest trade deficit of any country on Earth, other nations, such as China and Japan, holding stores of US dollars that increase each year.
    (A) other nations, such as China and Japan, holding
    (C) with other nations, such as China and Japan, holding

    • Mike
      Mike December 31, 2013 at 7:34 am #

      Siva,
      No, my friend, (A) would still be a much better answer, and (C) would still be wrong. You see, the structure “with” + [noun] + [active participle] is a structure that is never correct on the GMAT —- if we want to talk about that much action, we need to put it into a full [noun] + [verb] clause. The verb “hold” is an active verb, so the “with” construction is not acceptable. By contrast, (A) has a perfectly constructed absolute phrase.
      It’s important to read high quality material in English to develop an ear for these more sophisticated grammatical structures.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Shuvabrata April 10, 2014 at 2:11 am #

        Hi Mike,
        Can you please explain how (B) option, which uses ‘with’+[noun]+[participle] structure, is correct in the following question from OG-13 edition.

        Starfish, with anywhere from five to eight arms, have a strong regenerative ability, and if {one arm is lost it quickly replaces it, sometimes by the animal overcompensating and} growing an extra one or two.

        A one arm is lost it quickly replaces it, sometimes by the animal overcompensating and
        B one arm is lost it is quickly replaced, with the animal sometimes overcompensating and
        C they lose one arm they quickly replace it, sometimes by the animal overcompensating,
        D they lose one arm they are quickly replaced, with the animal sometimes overcompensating,
        E they lose one arm it is quickly replaced, sometimes with the animal overcompensating,

        • Mike
          Mike April 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

          Dear Shuvabrata,
          The GMAT is so tricky. I would say almost 99% of the time, the “with” +[noun] + [participle] structure is completely inappropriate for conveying an action, but this question (OG13, SC #114) lands in that very tricky 1% case — this is, after all, one of the harder SC questions in the OG. Also, notice, they are not testing this issue here — all five answers involve [preposition"] + [noun] + [participle] in some way, so it’s unavoidable, and therefore not something about which a student would need to make a decision.
          I would say the OA in this question is acceptable — not ideal, not perfect,, but acceptable. Why is it acceptable? Well, it is acceptable to use “with” if we are describing the manner in which an action is done. For example:
          He drives with great care.”
          She studies with a mind hungry to learn.”
          In both cases, the “with” preposition is an adverbial phrase, a phrase that asks the adverb question “how?”: how is the action of the verb done? how does he drive? how does she study?
          It could be argued that the long phrase “with the animal sometimes overcompensating and growing an extra one or two” is a similar adverbial phrase describing the manner in which an action is done. Much in the same way, the first “with” preposition, before the underlined part, is clearly an adjectival phrase, that is, a noun modifier, modifying the noun “starfish.” If the “with” phrase is clearly adjectival or clearly adverbial, then it’s fine. The trouble is, the “with” +[noun] + [participle] structures that often appear, on the GMAT SC and in colloquial English, are not even pretending to be adverbial or adjectival:
          With the CEO leaving after only five months, the company’s long term plan was in turmoil.” = YUCK!
          That’s a disastrous use of this structure, not adverbial, not adjectival, just 100% wrong. That’s far more typical, both on the GMAT SC and in colloquial English.
          Does all this make sense?
          Mike :-)

          • Shuvabrata April 10, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

            Excellent explanation…Thanks a lot Mike! :)

            • Mike
              Mike April 10, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

              Dear Shuvabrata,
              You are more than welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
              Mike :-)

  2. LanChi September 5, 2013 at 1:34 am #

    Thanks for your useful explanation, Mike! I would be so appreciated if you can supply more practice questions with the form [noun] + [that clause]. Thanks for your support again!

    • Mike
      Mike September 5, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      Dear LanChi —
      If you sign up for Magoosh, we have a some practice questions with absolute phrases. Probably the best practice, though, would be to read — read the New York Times, read the Economist magazine — read, and get good at spotting absolute phrases in context. That’s when you really will understand this construction.
      Mike :-)

  3. Jagadish August 27, 2013 at 4:18 am #

    Thank a lot Mike :) It made many things clear :)

    • Mike
      Mike August 27, 2013 at 10:16 am #

      Dear Jagadish,
      I’m glad that helped. Best of luck to you!
      Mike :-)

  4. kannav July 14, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    Great explanation

    • Mike
      Mike July 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

      Dear Kannav,
      I’m glad you found it helpful. Thank you for the kind words, and I wish you the best of luck.
      Mike :-)


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