Writing Advice

Take the “absolute” advantage;
Try this cool device to jack up sentence interest 

 (c) Arthur Plotnik

Trust me. I’m about to toss a grammatical term at you, and when all is said and done you will shower me with gratitude. For an "absolute phrase," you will see, represents one of the handiest descriptive devices in fiction—as well as one of the most mismanaged. Here we go:

The book written
, she took a drink, her head already in a spin.

       It doesn’t matter whether you call those italicized phrases  “absolute phrases” or “nominative absolutes” or “add-on descriptive thingies with their own subjects”; what matters is that these hard-working critters offer a lyrical way to vary sentence structure. Often they bring literary quality to pedestrian constructions like the following:

The book was written, so she took a drink, with her head already in a spin.

       You probably know the device when you see it: “Chin on chest, he fell asleep”; “She looked outside, the snow piling up”; “His mother appeared, her lap stained with tumeric.” Grammatically, an absolute doesn’t modify or link to the subject of a sentence; it has its own subject, thank you, along with a driving participle (or an understood participle, such as being). But for a quick heads-up on circumstances surounding the main subject, nothing beats an absolute phrase.

       In grammar country, the device is something of a maverick, unattached to anything in its sentence and free to serve in its own way. For more on its dynamics, see the sidebar, “Secrets of an Absolute Busybody.” 


Absolutes in practice

When editors see absolutes used competently, they are reassured that the writer has a feel for sophisticated, economic phrasing. But writers unaccustomed to the device either shy from it or, suddenly discovering its power, go overboard and use it to deliver truckloads of information and gut-driven outpourings:

The book written, her heart aflame, tears flowing, she took a drink—the tumbler weightless in her grasp, the vodka uncommonly delicious, the ice a congratulatory kiss against her lips.

Though too many absolutes diminish the emphasis of each, one shorn absolute can leave a sentence feeling heartsick and disoriented. Here, for example, are some absolute phrases ( italics mine) from contemporary literature. Peeling them away from the main clause would yield no grammatical penalty—just devastating losses of information, meaning, wit, or force.

I stopped short, a sick, hot feeling coming over me. —Anne Packer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier

She wore no makeup ... and smoked poutingly, her cheeks deeply hollowed on the inhale and her exhale delivered with a certain dismissive vehemence. —John Updike, Villages

Verity drew the curtains, their tropical floral designs in green and maroon and cream eminently soothing in the soft light of the living room bowling-pin sconces.  —Leslie Stella, Unimaginable Zero Summer

Ignatius belched, the gassy eructations echoing between the walls of the alley. —John Kennedy Toole,  A Confederacy of Dunces)


       Absolutes often contain the real headlines of a sentence: The book rejected, she took a drink, her loaded pistol on the table. Why? Because the device provides such a condensed, telegraphic way of imparting the news. It can be news about almost anything: the woman taking the drink, how she took it, the drink itself, or the weather; but somehow it should bear upon the meaning of the main clause. Notice also that absolutes can appear anywhere in the sentence including the middle (see sidebar). They must be set off with either commas or, in some situations, dashes: “... she took a drink—an explosion cutting short her celebration.”


Considering the options

Because it’s easy to slip into that literary idiom where absolutes run rampant, writers can help themselves by recognizing the device and asking: “Is this how I want to add the information, or is there a better way?”

       Understand that absolutes are made by dropping verbs and other parts of speech from various spelled-out phrases. Sometimes such phrases can be more precise: “When she finished writing the book, she took a drink, but her head was already in a spin, with new ideas brimming.” 

       Often, especially for variety, writers can opt for phrases that do link grammatically to the main clause—the good old participial phrase, for example: “Finishing the book, she took a drink. (What’s different? Unlike the absolute phrase, “the book finished,” the phrase “finishing the book” has no subject until it links to “she.”)

       Before using absolutes, writers might also consider the force of occasional short sentences and sentence fragments as opposed to phrase-heavy constructions. “She finished the book. Took a drink. Her head spun; it seemed swollen and diminished at once.”


       Okay—the column finished, I reach for a drink. So where is it? Where’s the gratitude? Lips parched, I sit waiting, my vodka tumbler extended, the ice and lime already there, mellow jazz playing in the background. . . .  (And listen, if you’d be so kind, would you make that vodka an Absolut?)  



Secrets of an Absolute Busybody

The absolute phrase doesn’t want to be a sentence. It’s a sentence busybody. It tells the circumstances (The book written ... her head already in a spin) surrounding a sentence’s action (“she took a drink”). It does so with its own subject plus a participle (written, spinning, being, etc.) or an understood participle: “The bottle (being) empty, she cursed.” It never uses a complete verb like wrote or spins or was to create a new action.

       In discussing absolutes, grammar texts often go no further than the awkardly formal versions, correctly advising against them: “The book havingbeen written, she took a drink, her head being already in a spin.” But in literary writing, such forms of “to be” in absolutes are silently implied, rather than pronounced as if in a court hearing. 



Warning: Avoid absolute addiction

You’ve probably been using absolute phrases forever: “That said, she left the room.” “He held her, his eyes searching the dance floor.” With their gossipy verve, economy and lyricism, absolutes give force to expression—but can also become habit-forming. Here are some warning signs of unrestrained use: 

Awkward placement: Carelessly placed, absolutes wreak havoc on sentence flow: “He wore a tee shirt ... and so did two young men, who, I realised with secret disppointment, their ears the shape they were born with, their hands umarked, would not have drawn a second glance on Oxford Street. (—Redmond O’Hanlon, Into the Heart of Borneo)

Used in dialogue: “‘My stomach empty, I’m hungry,’ he said.” No way. In speech, people tend not to use absolute phrases other than idiomatic ones such as, “all things being equal,” “that being the case,” etc.

Overused in dialogue tags: “‘Leave!’ he said, his face reddening.” “‘Never,’” she whispered, tears welling.” It’s obvious that more than a few absolutes in dialogue tagging would seem like parody—like one of those “Swifties” puns: “‘Give me that colander,’” he demanded, his voice straining.”

Overused in description: Even the incomparable John Updike falls slave now and then to love of absolutes, packing a novel with such sentences as, “”That May Saturday turned out as sunny and warm—the tufty lawn a garish virgin green, the oaks overhead not yet fully leafed, the blooming azaleas already shedding a few pink petals.” (Villages)

Complicated pronoun structure. Using a subject pronoun as the subject of an absolute phrase leads to grotesque constructions: “The day turned out sunny, she noting the garish virgin green of the tufty lawn.” You must avoid this use, you being the addicted absolutist.

(A version of this article appeared in The Writer magazine and later in my book Spunk & Bite.)


Holy subjunctive!

Using the airy (but scary) mood

with style and confidence

© Arthur Plotnik

“Damn the subjunctive,” wrote Mark Twain. “It brings all our writers to shame.” Apparently Twain took a few tumbles wrestling with the grammar of “airy” actions---wished and proposed actions, actions that are more idea than fact or event. And although smart writing now calls for fewer subjunctives than in Twain’s day, writers are still thrown by this verbal mode or “mood,” with its subtle twists on “normal” grammar. For example: 

·     “I insisted he write a bestseller.” (Not he writes.)

·     “If it were my book, I’d burn it.” (Not it was.)

·     “It’s important that she be clear.” (Not she is.)

·     “Should he find time to read my novel ...” (Not if he finds.)


      But if the subjunctive sometimes throws us, it also makes us better writers. The mood it conveys---shades of volition, hope, possibility, etc.---broadens our range of expression. It allies us with such masters of nuance as heads of state, Shakespeare and shapers of Holy Writ. And it separates us from those who say the subjunctive is extinct, as if saying so were to make it true.

      Subjunctives abound in contemporary writing. Even Fox network turned (if clumsily) to the grammar of airy actions in this program note:

O.J. Simpson . . . tells for the first time how he would have committed the murders if he were the one responsible for the crimes. [Better: the past-perfect subjunctive---“had he been the one.”]

Does it get me published?

Okay—can the subjunctive help you get published? To some extent, yes. Editors (and the more literate agents) respect writers who can handle the fine tools of expression. Also, when you deal with publishing deities, what finer tool than the grammar of hope, need and supplication? The subjunctive softens your hysteria into gentle wishes for action: May I suggest it be considered by the end of the month? . . . May I propose that the copyeditor restore the dialogue? . . . Should she find my manuscript, I’d be most appreciative.

The subjunctive without fear

Subjunctive-phobia is a common malady of foreign-language study. Who can forget those swarms of verb changes darkening a page of conjugations? But for most writing in English, the subjunctive now requires very few changes. Have a glimpse at the main ones; we’ll come back to them later:

·      were instead of the past indicative was (“if I were you);

·      be instead of is or are (“they insist it be typed);

·      a dropped s or es from the third-person-singular verb. (“I suggest he respond ”; “I ask that she do unto others …”).  In all other persons the subjunctive form (“she commands that we jump”) is mercifully the same as in our old friend, the indicative mood (“we jump at her command”).           

      Learning the subjunctive is less about memorizing its leaky rules of usage than developing an ear for its mood and its sound. Already certain idiomatic subjunctives roll off the tongue when we wish or suggest something; for example, “long live freedom,” “so be it,” “would to God,” “try as she might” and “as it were.” And high-flown subjunctives from history and literature echo in our ears:

[I]f  I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.      ---Queen Elizabeth I

But we needn’t be royalty (or even Helen Mirren) to master the Queenly idiom. It is within the reach of every speaker and writer to rise to the subjunctive when mood and tone suggest the choice.

Subjunctive mood arising

His military training . . . would demand that he crawl the next couple of miles. ---Adam Felber, Schrödinger’s Ball

Here, in a novel that toys with the uncertainty principle in physics, we come fittingly upon a subjunctive. Why fittingly? Because much as Felber bends a protagonist’s certainty of being, so does the subjunctive bend certainty of action.

      Factual action is usually expressed in the indicative mood: “he crawls.” But in Felber’s sentence, the subjunctive is used because no one in fact crawls, has crawled or will crawl. The crawling is but a notion contained in another act (a demand). It doesn’t even take place in a thought, such as, “I can picture how he crawls.” It never takes place, not in any real or imaginary sphere; it is unrealized.

      Grammarians often use the phrase “contrary to fact” in testing the need for a subjunctive. But in practice, sorting out “fact” from “contrary to fact” at every verb would be contrary to anyone’s sanity. Writers are better off getting to know the common types of words and expressions that pose certain ideas of action and thereby trigger the subjunctive. Such triggers express:

      Wish, will, intent, desire: “Better he strangle the plagiarist, I say.” “We wish that he were smarter.”

       Commands, orders:  “I demanded (insisted, urged) that he stop.” “The command that he curtsy was ridiculous.” (Note that command is a noun here; the trigger needn’t be a verb.)

       Suggestion, exhortation: “She proposed (suggested, hinted, prayed) that he rewrite the novel and that it be in the first-person.”

       Hypothesis, conjecture, condition, supposition
: “If he were to walk here on his hands, I still wouldn’t forgive him.”

      Necessity, requirement, expectation: “It is essential (important, vital, required, necessary) that she write .”

I was able to reasonably ask myself what exactly I expected of Lucy: That she make the same distinction I do between Rasteedy and other birds?  That she somehow understand Rasteedy’s special status . . . ?                       ---Charles Siebert, Wickerby


Choosing alternatives

When writers turn to the subjunctive, it is usually for mood rather than correctness. Among the few mandatory subjunctives (in American English) is the contrary-to-fact past subjunctive in as if or as though clauses---“as if it were tomorrow”; “as though she walked on water.” Otherwise, writers use subjunctive conjugations to achieve a certain elegance or period diction; nuance of will and urgency; or tone of improbability---an emphatic contrariness to fact. But almost all statements of will, demand, suggestion, etc., and actions contrary to fact can be expressed correctly in other ways.

      For example,  “I begged that he stop” could be expressed with an infinitive, “I begged him to stop” or with the form, “I begged that he should stop.”  Here the verb should is one of a class including could, may, might, must, and would.  Each can serve the subjunctive sense as an auxiliary (to be used with other verbs or understood verbs).

      These alternative approaches give the author different choices in diction, tone and rhythm. “She prayed he mend his ways.” “She prayed that he would mend his ways.” “She prayed he might mend his ways.” “He must mend his ways, she prayed.” One could also cross into the imperative mood: “What I pray to him, say to him,  is, mend those ways!”


When not to use it

Perhaps the toughest choice for subjunctive users is when not to use it--when, for example, it might seem pretentious or archaic. As for grammatical slips, the most common is using the were form in an if statement that is not contrary to fact---a statement that could be true to the speaker. It takes a cerebral pause to grasp the difference, but writers are no strangers to pauses. Compare the meaning of these statements: “If she was the best writer, why didn’t she win?” (It might well be true she was best.) But, “If she were the best writer, I’d quit the class.” (To me she is clearly not best.) 

      But before you quit our class, perhaps gasping for air, be heartened by this: The subjunctive’s shifting usages, complications of tense and other mysteries have grammarians themselves gasping--one of them for 156 pages of discussion. Our wish here is simply that the subjunctive no longer shame writers, but shape their writing to the very mood they have in mind.


Speaking in (streetwise) subjunctive

In this farcical conversation, the subjunctive verb is in italics, and boldface indicates a subjunctive “trigger”--- usually a verb form expressing wish, need, conjecture, demand, supposition and all that airy, contrary-to-fact stuff. Notice how the subjunctive changes the tenses from what they would normally be. Try to get an ear for it. 


      Next time,
if  I were you, I’d smack that guy.

      Nah. I
suggested  he take a walk---lest he lose his knees.

would  that you took my advice, dawg.

      Yo, it
might  make me look bad, bro.

     Suppose  he fooled with your girl  come* next year?

if  he messed with her after we were married? I  might  insist he be dead.

      I’m just sayin’--
-if  he knew what was good for him.

  Be  that as it may, man, this dawg  need   not sweat it.   --A. P.

        * Come next year: A “temporal” subjunctive; an idea of action in a future time.


( Versions of this article first appeared in The Writer magazine and later in my book Spunk & Bite.)

Watch this page for both new and newly updated offerings on the art and craft of writing, drawn from my disgraceful number of years as a journalist, columnist, literary author, writer on writing, editor, and publishing exec.  



​​​Arthur  Plotnik, Author