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"Thirsty, we drank. Hungry, we ate. Tired, we slept."

Is there a name for this form of writing? Is it a recognised literary device?

  • 4
    The terse style may be referred to as "telegraphic". Though that term applies to any style of short, spartan sentences. – Hot Licks Jun 23 '15 at 12:26
33

Each individual sentence here contains an example of an absolute construction. Other examples are:

Its hair flowing in the wind, the horse raced along the beach.

Preoccupied with his thoughts of the fast-approaching tour of the Rockies, Bill did not notice the horse.

Happy with her ice cream, Sally did not hear her mother calling.

Adjectives used in this role are understandably named 'absolute adjectives' (see Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog), but there is scope for confusion here due to ambiguity.

The absolute construction usually sounds unnatural with a bare adjective (especially a short one):

?Sad, he left.

Exhausted, he had to sit down.

Sad at not being picked, he left.

However, here, the repetition makes the whole acceptable, though obviously in an unusual style, more suitable for poetry than natural-sounding narrative.

  • 1
    For it to be an absolute adjectival construction, the adjective should not describe the main noun. See slu.edu/colleges/AS/languages/classical/latin/tchmat/grammar/… I'm not convinced that this answer is correct, I'm afraid -- although I'm prepared to be persuaded before downvoting. – Andrew Leach Jun 24 '15 at 10:22
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    Regarding “natural-sounding narrative”, forget not that outside today’s truncated thoughts of 142-character text messages, the classical figures of rhetoric still find homes beyond poetry alone. A stirring speech by Churchill or Kennedy, a Sunday-morning sermon or a graveside eulogy, a prepared graduation speech or a call to action about desperate social issues: in all these places and more will crafted prose by gifted writers elevate the tone above the idle chit-chat of locker room banter. Oratory is not dead. – tchrist Jun 24 '15 at 10:34
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    The usage is given say at University of Sheffield: User-defined Dictionary (Beta): Absolute adjectives do not belong to a larger construction (aside from a larger adjective phrase), and typically modify either the subject of a sentence or whatever noun or pronoun they are closest to; for example, happy is an absolute adjective in "The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going." Once again, terminologies seem not to correspond (though isn't your reference to usage in Latin grammar?) – Edwin Ashworth Jun 24 '15 at 10:53
  • @tchrist I forgot not. I thought I'd let you fill in some other points along the continuum. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 24 '15 at 11:04
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    My first reaction was that of @AndrewLeach, that the "absolute" adjective phrase does not modify the subject. But I learned that meaning of "absolute" from Latin, as maybe Andrew did. From the other sources listed here, it's clear that "absolute" has been defined in (a variety of) different ways for English. – LarsH Jun 24 '15 at 13:08
15

Your quoted line makes literary use of repetition, parallel structures and change of normal word order and shortening and parataxis. In normal language the line would be:

We drank when we were thirsty,and ate when we were hungry, and slept when we were tired.

A list of sixty traditional rhetorical devices: http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm

Recognized literary device? Recognized or not, the line has a stylistic effect, out of the ordinary, it draws attention, stays in your mind, pleases, and is the art of all great narrator talents.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/?title=Rhetoric

  • perceptive response. – user98990 Jun 23 '15 at 9:46
  • 3
    I read it as 'Being thirsty...', though I imagine it is probably unambiguous in its broader context. – sdenham Jun 23 '15 at 13:39
12

Guess it comes from latin construct named ablative absolute:

Tarquinio regnante, Pythagoras venit.

(Tarquinius reigning, Pythagoras came. or When Tarquinius was king, Pythagoras came.)

The food being good, they ate well.

  • If the subject, instead of Tarquinius, had been first person singular, that pronoun is usually absorbed into the verb form. But the participle regnante has no room inside for a pronoun, so what happens to the "I" in that case? – Ralph Dratman Jun 23 '15 at 22:57
  • @RalphDratman It would be "Me regnante". See for example "Nobis quiescentibus, repente venunt hostes" ["As we were sleeping, suddenly the enemies came"]. – moonwave99 Jun 24 '15 at 10:40
  • I don't think this is the same construction. Your Latin example is ablative absolute ("an independent phrase with a noun... both words forming a clause grammatically unconnected with the rest of the sentence"). But the examples in the question don't have a noun, and they share the subject with the main clause of the sentence. – LarsH Jun 24 '15 at 13:13

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