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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.

    (A) other nations, such as China and Japan, holding
    (B) and other nations, like China and Japan, holding
    (C) with other nations, like China and Japan, holding
    (D) other nations, like China and Japan, hold
    (E) 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.

    (A) of which some of them have
    (B) some of which having
    (C) some of them having
    (D) some of them have
    (E) 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.



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!

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