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GMAT SC Tip: The Bread and Butter of a Sentence

Guest post by Kevin at

Just as humans really only NEED a few things to survive—water, food and shelter—a sentence really only NEEDS a subject and a verb. As long as a noun corresponds to some sort of action, a sentence can survive. Everything else is just filler, modifiers inserted to describe something about this subject-verb pair. On the Sentence Correction portion of the GMAT, the error or errors tested can be anywhere in a sentence, and the harder the question, the more difficult an error may be to spot. There are several ways the GMAT can try to hide an error involving a sentence’s bread and butter, or subject-verb pair.  Don’t be fooled! Remember the simple rule below, and you’ll be less likely to fall victim to GMAT trickeries.

The subject of a sentence will never be inside of a prepositional phrase. Prepositions—“of,” “in,” “between,” “for”—are little words that introduce modifying phrases. These phrases can describe a subject or action, but the subject will never be the noun that is part of this phrase as the object of the preposition. The GMAT tries to deceive you into believing that the noun following the preposition is the subject, so that you may choose a verb that incorrectly agrees in number with a noun that is not the true subject. Get it?

The following example can better depict the deception.

“The pile of toys are on the table.”

Especially because the plural “toys” comes right before the plural “are,” the error may not pop out as noticeably—the subject is actually the singular “pile.” “Toys” is the object of the preposition “of,” making “toys” a part of a phrase describing the actual subject, “the pile.” The verb must agree in number with the true subject. The correct version of the sentence is:

“The pile of toys is on the table.”

The sentence above is rather simple, but the GMAT will sandwich tons of modifiers between the subject and its corresponding verb. Ignore prepositional phrases when you’re matching a subject with its verb.

Don’t forget about this strategy when a sentence begins with a prepositional phrase; a sentence beginning with a prepositional phrase can make the subject even more difficult to spot. In some cases, all that comes before a verb is a prepositional phrase. When all that comes before a verb is a modifying phrase, like a prepositional phrase, the subject must come after the verb. This type of construction is called an inverted sentence. By remembering that the subject of a sentence will never be inside of a prepositional phrase, you’ll spot this sentence structure right away.

For example:
“On the table is a chess set and a picture frame.”

Though the sentence above is not particularly long or complicated, it’s grammatically incorrect. When there’s a problem with the subject-verb pair in a sentence, the sentence cannot function. By remembering that the subject of a sentence will never be inside of a prepositional phrase, you won’t be tricked into believing that “table” is the subject, for it’s the object of the preposition “of.”  Because everything that comes before the verb is this prepositional phrase, the subject must come after the verb. The true subject of the sentence is the compound, plural “a chess set and a picture frame.”
The correctly-written sentence reads:

“On the table are a chess set and a picture frame.”

On the GMAT are tricky Sentence Correction questions!

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