After years of study, Bumbo had reached the level of comma apprentice and was allowed to carry his own red pen. Now, faced with a more challenging concept, he was confused.
“Teacher,” he asked, “how can I understand absolute phrases?”
His teacher asked in response, “What is the universe?”
“It’s what is all around us,” Bumbo replied, still confused.
The teacher nodded sagely and said, “Meditate on the universe, and you will be enlightened.”
The Meaning of the Koan
When Bumbo thinks a bit, he realizes that the universe, by definition, contains everything in it. In that way, the universe defines everything it contains, not just one thing. The teacher wants Bumbo to apply this idea to absolute phrases, which describe everything in the sentence and not just one word.
Once Bumbo understands this, he will understand absolute phrases, and he will realize that he needs to separate them with commas to prevent the reader from thinking they are associated with any one part.
Examples of Absolute Phrases
The meeting finished, the committee members left for lunch.
Bob set his phone down, its battery dead.
The neighbor’s music still blaring, Julia called the cops.
As you can see from these examples, the absolute phrase (underlined) describe the entire situation described in the main sentence. Also, notice that the absolute phrases are separated from the main sentence with a comma.
This follows Zen Comma Rule AB: Separate absolute phrases with commas.
Further Explanation of the Terms
Absolute phrase. An absolute phrase modifies, or describes, the entire sentence, not any particular word in the sentence. It contains a noun and a participle, and it may contain additional descriptive terms.
Participle. A participle is a form of a verb being used as an adjective. It is not a complete verb. For example, burning is used as a participle in the burning building. It describes building, and it cannot be used as a verb unless you add another verb, such as is or were, as in The building is burning.
Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.