Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Three Syntactic Devices Worth Using

appositive, participial phrase, absolute

Some syntactic devices are more "mature" than others. Here are three in particular that a writers should consciously make a part of their repertoire. These three are the appositive, the participial phrase, and the absolute construction.

  1. Let's take the appositive first. Basically, the appositive is a definition-like detail that usually precedes or follows a noun or pronoun. Here's an example from John Updike:

    He could see everything about the man: his sly cat's smile, the peak of hair at the back of his head, his hemispherical stomach, his candy-striped T-shirt, and his crepe-soled shoes.

    I would argue that this sentence's art begins after the colon. Certainly there's nothing distinguished about "He could see everything about the man." It's when Updike launches into his series of five consecutive appositives that we abruptly downshift into specific detail and novelistic play.

    We've  spoken elsewhere of the usefulness of concrete detail. Appositives can deliver that detail.

    Here's an example from critic Northrop Frye of appositives being used in a more academic context:

    On the shallowest levels we find cliches, formulations that may once have represented mental activity but are now only substitutes for it, automatic responses that give those who are not thinking the illusion of thought.

    The Frye example isn't as colorful, but note how it enables him to craft sentence rhythm.

    Here are three more examples of sentences which employ appositives:

    She met him at the appointed time in the Plaza lobby, a lovely, faded, gray-eyed blonde in a coat of Russian sable.

    --F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Mr. Kettledrum, a gaunt, grizzled man of middle age, with a beaked nose and a drooping moustache, which was dyed henna-colour from excessive use of tobacco, looked down at her with his sharp twinkling eyes.

    --Ellen Glasgow

    Granmom's eyes, worn bits of crazed crystal embedded in watery milk, widened behind her cockeyed spectacles.

    --John Updike

    Now it's your turn. First, recognize that any noun or pronoun in a sentence can serve as the base for an appositive. Let's take the following sentence, for example:

    Predator provided a perfect starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    You'll note that there are three nouns in the sentence--Predator, vehicle, and Arnold Schwarzenegger--with the first and the third being the most likely candidates. Let's add some appositives, first to one, then to the other, and then to both.

    Predator, one of 1987's most popular stalk and splatter films, provided a perfect starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    Predator provided a perfect starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-Austrian weightlifter and current governor of California.

    One of 1987's most popular stalk-and-splatter films, Predator provided a perfect starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-Austrian weightlifter and current governor of California.

    What follows is a series of example sentences. Add at least one detail in the form of an appositive to each. Try for variety by placing your appositives in different sentence positions and occasionally by adding more than one appositive. Feel free to substitute your own sentence (s) where appropriate.

    1. Initially, college life is a series of shocks.

    2. My favorite books seem to share common themes.

    3. Some women feel threatened by the feminist movement.

    4. There are advantages in attending a small college.

    5. She expected to a find a world filled with glamor.

    6. Effective teachers tend to have certain identifiable characteristics.

    7. The Guilford cafeteria seems to serve the same dishes over and over again.

    8. There were only three people in the reading room.

    9. She remembered how thoughts of the Bryan party had always filled her with numb excitement.

    10. There's one course I wish I had dropped my freshman year.

  2. Now, let's shift to the second of the three syntactic devices, the participial phrase. This is a modifier formed in two main ways.

    Remember the three principal parts of a verb?

    SING SANG SUNG

    If you add "ing" to the first principal part, you get a present participial phrase:

    Singing along with her car stereo, Sheila sped down Friendly Avenue.

    If you begin your phrase with the verb's third principal part, you get a past participial phrase:

    Sung first by the Beatles, "Michelle" became one of the 70s' most recorded songs.

    Whereas appositives add concrete information about nouns, participial phrases add concrete information about verbs.

    Here's a sentence that makes art with participial phrases:

    The hawk could sail for hours, searching the blanched grasses below him with his telescopic eye, gaining height against the wind, descending in mile-long, gently declining swoops when he curved and rode back, never beating a wing.

    --Walter Van Tilburg Clark

    Here's another way of looking at the sentence:

    1 The hawk could sail for hours

    2 searching the blanched grasses below him with his telescopic eye

    2 gaining height against the wind

    2 descending in smile-long, gently declining swoops when he curved

    and rode back

    2 never beating a wing

    I'm using "1" to represent the main action and "2" to represent modifying material which is commenting on what's said in "1" (this system was devised by Francis Christensen).

    The sentence could stand alone with only "1," but how impoverished it would be in comparison. The participial phrases have two striking effects. One is that they add much concrete information, enabling us to see the hawk in the sky. The other is to create a rhythm that actually imitates the hawk's flight. The gentle parallelism of the unfolding phrases makes us experience viscerally what it is that the sentence is describing.

    We can see the same potentiality in the following sentence from Robert Coughlan:

    Trusting his intuition, Faulkner wrote those stories which seemed to him at the time to have most interest and meaning, letting the collage grow, often doubling back in time to supply earlier episodes, to which existing episodes thus became sequels, leaving gaps to be filled someday, starting sagas and putting them aside to start others, brooding over this private world, not so much its creator as the medium through which it was trying to be created.

    Or, viewed another way:

    2 Trusting his intuition

    1 Faulkner wrote those stories

    2 which seemed to him at the time to have most interest and meaning

    (RELATIVE CLAUSE)

    2 letting the collage grow

    2 often doubling back in time to supply earlier episodes to which

    existing episodes thus became sequels

    2 leaving gaps to be filled someday

    2 starting sagas and putting them aside to start others

    2 brooding over this private world, not so much its creator as the

    medium through which it was trying to be created

    In this sentence, Coughlan has not only imitated the syntax of Faulkner himself (how appropriate, given the subject!) but has like Clark used the form of his writing to suggest visually and aurally what he's writing about: the recursive flow of the phrases actually matches Faulkner's writing process.

    Here are a couple more examples of artful sentences employing participial phrases. Note how the second adds an appositive at the end:

    We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head.

    --E.B. White

    Stretching away, the cotton fields, slowly emptying, were becoming the color of the sky, a deepening blue so intense that it was like darkness itself.

    --Eudora Welty

    And how about this sentence from Loren Eiseley that combines participial phrases with appositives? We now have a "3" level because these embedded elements modify elements in "2" rather than "1."

    1 I used to park my car on a hill and sit silently observant

    2 listening to the talk ringing out from neighbor to neighbor (PP)

    2 seeing the inhabitants drowsing in their doorways (PP)

    2 taking it all in with nostalgia (PP)

    3 the sage smell of the wind (APP)

    3 the sunlight without time (APP)

    3 the village without destiny. (APP)

    Now, again, it's your turn. As before, add at least participial phrase to each of the sentences below. Try for variety by using both past and present participial phrases, by placing the participial phrase in different positions within your sentence, and by occasionally using more than one participial phrase in a sentence. Build at least one series like that in the sentences above.

    An example: if you began with the sentence, "At the far end of the bar sat Eddie Haskell," you could begin in one of the following ways. The first version contains a present participial phrase, the second a past participial phrase, and the third both.

    At the far end of the bar sat Eddie Haskell, holding his head in his hands.

    At the far end of the bar sat Eddie Haskell, so depressed that not even 80-proof Wild Turkey could cheer him up.

    At the far end of the bar sat Eddie Haskell, holding his head in his hands, so depressed that not even 80-proof Wild Turkey could cheer him up.

    Please feel free to substitute your own sentence for any of the following examples.

    1. Bonzo stared at him for a moment.

    2. The door creaked open.

    3. They tentatively reached out their hands to each other.

    4. Jane Fernandes addressed the convocation.

    5. Half of all Americans watch television at least six hours a day.

    6. The Guilford student body has forged a unique identity for itself.

    7. The administration has decided to hike tuition costs once again.

    8. The werewolf started to walk slowly and then quickened his pace to a trot.

    9. The pair made their way back to Binford from the cafeteria.

    10. Ethel met Felix during a spring break work trip and a week later agreed to marry him.

  3. Finally we have the absolute construction, which is probably the most sophisticated of all syntactic constructions. It combines elements of both appositive and participial phrase. What you do is to take one piece of what is being described in the main clause, name it, and then add a participial phrase to it.

Here's an example:

He watched the stage coach go by, the four horses spanking along as the driver flicked them, the polished metal gleaming in the sun, the body swaying as the wheels rose and fell in the rough trail.

--A.B. Guthrie

Or:

1 He watched the stage coach go by

2 the four horses spanking along as the driver flicked them

2 the polished metal gleaming in the sun

2 the body swaying as the wheels rose and fell in the rough trail

What Guthrie has done has been to take three bits of detail from the main clause ("He watched the stage go by") and to further describe them so that we can see whatever the unnamed "he" is seeing. In a way, all three items--horses, metal, and body--are appositives renaming "stage coach," but not exactly. If we were diagramming this sentence, we would take the absolutes and connect them to the sentence with dotted lines. In a technical sense they stand alone (thus "absolute").

The best way to get a clear sense of what the absolute construction is, is to practice it. Before we move on to exercises, though, let me run a couple more sentences by you, for inspiration. This time, however, we will look at sentences that mix constructions. Each contains absolutes but also one or both of the other syntactic elements--appositives and participial phrases that we have looked at. Note how in each the "1" element is relatively plain: the art comes at the "2" and "3" levels.

1 Then I saw a dark muzzle and the shadow of horns, and then

2 with a clattering on the wood in the hollow box (ADVERB PHRASE)

1 the bull charged and came out into the corral,

2 skidding with his forefeet in the straw as he stopped (PP)

3 his head up (ABS)

3 the great hump of muscle on his neck swollen tight (ABS)

3 his body muscles quivering as he looked up at the crowd on the stone walls. (ABS)

--Ernest Hemingway

Note that Hemingway is not producing the asyndetic parataxis that we saw earlier. He had a wide repertoire of syntactic effects and so should you.

1 There were black Saturdays now and then

2 when Maria and Miranda sat ready (SUBORDINATE CLAUSE)

3 hats in hand (ABS)

3 curly hair plastered down and slicked behind their ears

(ABS)

3 their stiffly pleated navy-blue skirts spread out around them

(ABS)

3 waiting with their hearts going down slowly into their high-

topped laced-up boots. (PP)

--Katherine Anne Porter

1 He had ten yards in the clear and picked up speed

2 breathing easily (PP)

2 feeling his thigh pads rising and falling against his legs (PP)

2 listening to the sound of cleats behind him (PP)

2 pulling away from them (PP)

2 watching the other backs heading him off toward the sideline (PP

3 the whole picture,/, all suddenly clear in his head (ABS)

4 the men closing in on him (ABS)

4 the blockers fighting for position (ABS)

4 the ground he had to cross

3 for the first time in his life not a meaningless confusion of

men, sounds, speed. (APP)

--Irwin Shaw

Exercise: To each of the following sentences add one fact or detail in the form of an absolute. Add some of the absolutes at the beginning of the sentences, some in the middle, and some at the end. For any two sentences add a series of three absolutes.

Example:

The student stood outside the professor's office door.

The student stood outside the professor's office door, sweat streaming down his forehead.

OR

The student stood outside the professor's office door, books clutched tightly to his chest, hand raised to knock, sweat streaming down his forehead.

1. The passengers waited patiently inside the Regional Airport terminal.

2. He spoke to her gently, soothingly.

3. The drunk tumbled down the grassy slope.

4. When the movie ended, we left the theater quickly.

5. Astrid sat alone on her apartment floor sorting through old CD's.

6. We finally reached the freeway off-ramp.

7. From the second floor office, the campus looked deserted.

8. The dog barked once and then twice more before settling back to sleep.

9. The sycamore heaved in the tropical-storm-force winds.

10. She walked briskly through the noonday crowd in front of Founders.